Obama’s Farewell Speech: If only Washington hadn’t been so right

Posted on April 6, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the latest violation of our Constitution re moves to end the right of judicial filibuster.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, since the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

We left off with this statement: “And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” We pick up from there:

And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.

(CROWD CHEERS)

And we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on pre-school for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?

How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.

—“A common baseline of facts”; we find that even in the short time since Obama’s farewell we have experienced many people lobbying harder than we could have believed possible to deny, denigrate, and destroy that foundation of rational society. “Fake news” has become the most used phrase in America, to our detriment, because it just doesn’t make sense. If something is untrue/a lie, it’s not news at all. There aren’t two kinds of news, the real and the fake. There is news of real events and lies/rumors of fake events. But we have been worked on so diligently by anti-democratic people that we seem now to accept that news itself is somehow suspect, and those anti-democratic people slander the truth as “fake news”, which is such a big leap into some dystopia from a YA novel that we can’t quite believe it’s happening, but it is.

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement that (at) the promise to save this planet.

(APPLAUSE)

But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects. More environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary. Now we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.

—It’s amazing what ancient history this seems like just a few months later, as the Trump Administration has begun the process of undoing all of the climate change prevention measures the Obama Administration put in place, and has actually forbidden government agencies to use the term “climate change” in any written or oral communication. This is such a big leap into dystopia that it moves beyond YA to 1984, but it’s also happening. We will indeed be “busy dealing with its effects” even if we don’t say the words “climate change.”

It is that spirit — it is that spirit born of the enlightenment that made us an economic powerhouse. The spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral, the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket, it’s that spirit. A faith in reason and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies.

An order based not just on military power or national affiliations, but built on principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press.

—The “spirit” is that of “innovation and practical problem-solving” and it is indeed beholden to the Enlightenment; faith in reason and primacy of right over might, rule of law, human rights, and an independent press are what made the United States a great nation. Those are the principles enshrined in the Constitution.

(APPLAUSE)

That order is now being challenged. First by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam. More recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who seek free markets in open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.

The peril each poses to our democracy is more far reaching than a car bomb or a missile. They represent the fear of change. The fear of people who look or speak or pray differently. A contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable. An intolerance of dissent and free thought. A belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform. Because of our intelligence officers and law enforcement and diplomats who support our troops…

(APPLAUSE)

… no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years.

—Sadly, that Enlightenment order we call the American Way is being challenged by Americans who are not Muslim or immigrants or “suspicious” in any other way. Freedom is being attacked by mainstream Americans who see it as standing in the way of their power. Our federal government is being dismantled, and what is left is being honed to serve individual profit. We are being turned against each other in the interest of people who will gain by our division.

We are, in short, seeing what George Washington warned us about most passionately and directly in his 1796 Farewell Address: treachery from within. Let’s turn to the first Farewell Address in American history, which seems as if it was written expressly for us in 2017 (we did the bolding):

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

—That is, you love your democracy and your democratic government, and you should. But remember that it is a painfully new idea, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy, and get you to go back to the old ways. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

That was Washington’s message. We’ll continue on with Obama’s next time.

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President Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on January 13, 2017. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Presidential farewell addresses are fairly predictable. They are dramatic, emotional, and long. But sometimes they are very important, because they shine a clear light on how our highest leader thinks about the United States, his analysis of what is good and bad about the nation, and how he wants us to think about it. You may recall our series on the first farewell address, from George Washington, and  our series on Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address. Both are instances of important farewell addresses. Both warn the American people against dangers and urge them to preserve what America stands for (though they could not possibly be more different in how they define each of those categories).

Now Barack Obama has delivered his farewell, and we feel it is important, partly because of the president giving it, and partly because of the president about to follow him. Here is the first installment in our close-reading (we take our text from the official White House transcript, omitting only the times it tells you people applauded [“Applause”]):

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! It’s good to be home! Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. All right, everybody sit down. We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat.

—Right away we see Obama doing something different: he’s the only president since Lyndon Johnson to give his Farewell Address in front of a live audience (Johnson gave his as part of his last State of the Union Address in 1969). Presidents before TV generally saw farewell addresses as literary artifacts: they were published without ever being delivered as speeches. Presidents in the radio age gave their addresses over the radio. And with the exception of Johnson, presidents in the TV age gave their addresses on TV. There is usually no call-and-response between president and audience. Here, we see Obama responding to the audience, and we deleted about a half-dozen references to applause.

Why the actual speech? There seem to be two possible or likely answers: first, Obama enjoys talking to a live audience; second, it was particularly important for him to see the faces of his supporters (since people who do not support him would be unlikely to show up at this event). He has always expressed great affection for and closeness to his supporters, and as he hands off the presidency to someone who clearly does not like Obama supporters, Mr. Obama wanted to “be with them” one last time as president. This jibes with the overall optimism of Obama’s message; he seems to have wanted to bolster the mood and hopes of those who look forward to Trump’s presidency with dread. It’s far easier to do this in person, where you can gesture and laugh and walk around a little—not things you can really do as well on TV.

My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks.  Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts — those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

—It seems odd to us that people began to chant “four more years” at this point. It’s something Americans do, but not usually this early in a speech, and not usually until the president says something about what he’s accomplished in office. Here, Obama has made only  a fairly boilerplate statement, so far as presidential speeches go, about what he’s learned from the American people, and just begun to talk about his early years (something almost every address since Reagan seems to do). And even this reminiscing, so far, is pretty standard—talking about the dignity of hard-working Americans who meet challenges bravely.

Maybe people’s emotions were sparked because the president speaking is black, and for the first time, so are the working people dealing with struggle and loss. Obama will address this openly later in the Address, when he says (in so many words) that “hard-working Americans” has become a code for “white Americans”. But as a young black organizer, Obama met with black Americans who struggled but possessed dignity and faith, and he recognized them as real Americans. This may have hit his audience and led them to cry out for four more years of a black president.

Next time: the most important thing any president, any American, could say

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