Obama’s farewell address: economics and liberty
On we go with post three in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. President Obama had just spoken about the “call to citizenship” that must reinvigorate each generation of Americans to inspire them to live up to our founding principles.
So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.
—He begins with a theme dear to our HP hearts, that America is exceptional not because it’s “great” or because the American people are naturally superior to all others, but because of our founding principles. When we live up to those, America is the greatest nation. When we don’t, when we avoid or reject the hard, contentious, and bloody work of democracy, of ensuring liberty and justice for all, when we stop our forward motion, America is not great. Worse than that, it is a perverted parody of what it is supposed to be. Every generation must recommit the nation to the work of real democracy.
If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.
—If you hold up each of these accomplishments against the litmus test of “does it promote liberty and justice for all?”, then the Obama Administration scores very high. Job creation can be good or bad; restricting immigration to “protect jobs for Americans”, or lowering taxes on the wealthy by calling them “job-creators” and promoting the so-far mythical promise of “trickle-down economics” are bad. But in the case of the Obama Administration, job creation was mostly good.
In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no, no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.
—Again, this was a speech in front of a large, live crowd, so when Obama began this section, people who did not support Trump booed. That’s why Obama says “no”. We have been alarmed at the HP by the constant hauling out of the old trope that “nothing represents our democracy better than our peaceful transfer of power”. That peaceful transfer is important, but only when we are not handing the presidency to a would-be tyrant whose stated purpose is to destroy the federal government. Then it is right to protest that hand-off of power, and to not go quietly into the brave new world.
Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.
Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.
—Obama salvages things somewhat by saying even under Trump, we are all still obliged by our founding principles to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we face”, and by reminding us that none of our human potential means anything without our democracy—and our decency, which we may define, once again, as “liberty and justice for all.”
And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.
There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.
In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.
—Before the president transitions into a list of economic wins, we pause to linger over this section, which speaks for itself. All we would add is that our Founders worked long hours to create a system of government that could not only withstand troubled times, but was built to power through troubled times and create a bulwark against trouble. Our system of government is not weak and outdated and harmful and unable to keep us free. Just the opposite. It’s only when we undermine its workings that we expose ourselves to danger.
And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.
The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.
Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.
Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.
But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.
—In other words, when you have liberty and justice for all, the economy improves. As he goes on to elaborate:
That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.
The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.
Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.
And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.
To give workers the power…
… to unionize for better wages.
To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now.
And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.
We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.
—Complacency is indeed the enemy of a representative democracy in a world with very few representative democracies.