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

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 8 so far )

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...