Barack Obama’s farewell as president to the US was, alas, perhaps the biggest misfire of his public career. Which is too bad, because there was a terrific speech in there somewhere trying to get out.
I’ll start with what went wrong.
The basic problem was that the event, and the speech, couldn’t make up their minds about what they were doing. The core of the speech, as far as I could tell, was a classic farewell address in the spirit of George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower: serious advice to the nation, distilling something he had learned from the last eight years, meant to be taken seriously and remembered.
Unfortunately, this was mostly lost in the mess of a long, split-personality speech. Obama ricocheted back and forth between a campaign rally, a recitation of the administration’s greatest hits (bin Laden! Jobs! Cuba! Marriage!), a State of the Union-type laundry list of future policies he supports, an opportunity to personally give thanks to his family, staff, supporters, and voters, and then back around again. And the setting — in Chicago, with a large cheering audience — meant that even the serious parts felt more like a campaign rally than something to think about.
It’s too bad, because Obama did have something to say about democracy, how it is threatened, and what can be done about it.
Under the rubric of "rebuilding our democratic institutions," the president returned to his first important national speech, from the 2004 Democratic convention, in which he talked about the reality of one America underneath the partisan bickering we engage in. Obama (once again) used the spirit of the Enlightenment to argue connections between political participation, rational thought, tolerance, and economic prosperity, all wrapped up as integral to democracy and to the best of the US. And he urged us to see the forces of irrationality, fear, and inequality as very real parts of America as well, parts which the nation has gradually overcome despite recent setbacks.
These are Obama’s themes, and with Donald Trump about to be sworn in as president, they are ideas that could have presented more forcefully as both a dire warning and a way forward.
He had some great lines, too. As he steps down from the presidency, he was perfectly positioned to talk about how "for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: citizen." The law-professor president, who cares deeply about participation, explained that the US Constitution is "really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power."
But the connections between what’s good about America never quite came together, and it wasn’t clear at all how they related to the immediate threats he mentioned (from Islamic State and authoritarians) and described (partisan polarisation) and alluded to (Trump). Every time he seemed to be focusing on larger ideas, he wound up talking about how poverty statistics had turned in the right direction last year.
There was an audience problem, too. The speech seemed directed beyond the kind of Democratic supporters in attendance, yet bragging about his administration’s successes was not the way to win over those folks. He probably would have been better off just going with the rally for the celebration, and saving the rest for some other time.
The good news is that Barack Obama may not have given a great presidential farewell address, but he’s hardly finished as a public speaker. He’s probably better situated to give important post-presidential speeches than any of his predecessors, given his age and his particular abilities, talents, and interests. When scholars and students study his greatest speeches decades from now, they’ll skip over this one to get to the good ones he gave after he left office.
He has a lot left to say. I look forward to hearing from Citizen Obama.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg and its owners.