The Audacity to Cope
What I learned re-reading Obama
There was a phrase that President Barack Obama said during his farewell address that caught my ear.
“For all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy,” he said. “Citizen.”
I flipped through my copy of The Audacity of Hope that I’ve been re-reading the last few months. There it was, at the end of his chapter on politics. It was an anecdote about a meeting with a constituent that disagreed with him. Page 135.
“As he walked away, I was reminded of something Justice Louis Brandeis once said: that in a democracy, the most important office is the office of citizen.”
Obama ended his farewell address the same way he started his candidacy, with the short, simple phrase “Yes We Can.”
But if you look at the text of his speech, all the themes he talks about go back further than 2008. Here are just a few of the parallels between 2006’s The Audacity of Hope and 2017’s farewell address:
When I hear commentators interpreting my speech to mean that we have arrived at a “post-racial politics” or that we already live in a colorblind society, I have to offer a word of caution. To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters — that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted…. I have witnessed a profound shift in race relations in my lifetime…. But as much as I insist that that things have gotten better, I am mindful of this truth as well: Better isn’t good enough.
After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say. You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.
Other fears of native-born Americans are disturbingly familiar, echoing the xenophobia once directed at Italians, Irish, and Slavs fresh off the boat — fears that Latinos are inherently too different, in culture and temperament, to assimilate fully into the American way of life.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.
The Founders and ratifiers themselves disagreed profoundly, vehemently, on the meaning of their masterpiece… It may be the vision of the Founders that inspire us, but it was their realism, their practicality and flexibility and curiosity, that ensured the Union’s survival.
Our founders argued. They quarreled. Eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same.
That’s just a small sampling. Obama’s farewell address is the Ted Talk version of his book.
The Audacity of Hope is sometimes filled with soaring hopeful rhetoric, but mostly it reads like a series of legal essays.
Almost every paragraph contains some qualifier like “on the other hand” “of course” “still” “though” “although” “if I’m honest with myself.” Obama stretches himself to show the many complex facets of any contentious issue, whether it’s global trade or immigration reform.
Sometimes, it reads like a textbook.
As I read chapters from faith to the Constitution, I can’t help but picture Obama as a professor of law in the classroom. He’s poking and prodding his students to question their beliefs, consider counter arguments, understand the other side and still try to come to some coherent conclusion. And we are the students.
If The Audacity of Hope feels like a textbook, then Obama’s farewell address felt like one last epic review session.
Obama delivered his speech with the calm demeanor of a professor who has been repeating the same familiar themes all semester. But we’re an easily distracted audience. We check our phones too much when we should be listening. We need reminding.
So he’s going to sum it all up for us again, one last time.
At this stage, nothing is new. Obama covered all the familiar Obama-isms: Don’t get cynical, most contentious issues aren’t black and white, we’re all in this together, get out of your bubbles and talk to people who aren’t like you, roll up your sleeve and get involved yourself.
“I am asking you to believe,” Obama said in his parting words. “Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”
And then, that’s it. We’re on our own for the test.