Three Things About Obama’s Farewell

A few quick thoughts on the president’s farewell address. At some point, I may revisit the speech with a more critical eye, but for now, these were the points or themes that stood out to me the most.

A Politician from Illinois

When he referred to America as “our bold experiment in self-government,” Barack Obama invoked the ideas of another politician from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

It was Lincoln’s sincere belief that America was an experiment in self-government, and indeed the world’s lone, best experiment. At the height of the Civil War he wrote, “I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity…If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”*

President Obama invoked our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Washington, as bookends to his speech. He used their words and ideas as a call to citizenship: our democracy and the rights preserved by it are only as enduring as the people who protect them. “These rights,” he said, “while self-evident, have never been self-executing.”

* Quote from Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin)

Threats to Our Democracy

In this call to citizenship, Obama described three threats to democracy. First, economic inequality, that those who are struggling might come to see government as responsive only to the rich and grow tired and cynical about democracy itself. Second, racial prejudice, especially as it pits racial groups against one another in competition for ever-shrinking slices of the economic pie. And third, information bubbles, those silos of fact and opinion that leave the public sphere without a shared starting point for debate.

The state of our democracy was the thread that linked his speech together. Through statistics about his administration’s successes and an articulation of what he believes to be his legacy, he returned again and again to this theme. “Our democracy,” he said as the speech drew to a close, “is threatened whenever we take it for granted.”

Better Angels of Our Nature

What I’ve come to respect most about President Obama is that he always spoke to the best parts of us. Despite his shortcomings and my own disagreements with many of his policies and decisions, I appreciate now more than ever how he tried to bring out our hopeful and optimistic impulses, instead of those driven by fear and insecurity.

His farewell address maintained that optimism, and perhaps even more strongly, it cautioned against cynicism and inaction. His last request as president reflected on his first promises as a candidate: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”

You can find the address in its entirety here.

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