Barack Obama has talked his way out of jams before.
When the pickle was the bottomless obscurity of the state Legislature, facing years of downstate lapel-grabbing before, maybe, finding a toehold up the ladder, Obama conjured the audacity of hope at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, rocketing himself from Springfield, Illinois, to the U.S. Senate and halfway to the White House.
When the difficulty was fallout from intemperate remarks made by Jeremiah Wright, threatening to derail Obama’s presidential campaign, the Illinois senator urged us to unite and strive toward our Constitution’s goal of a “more perfect union.”
“We cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” he told Constitution Hall in Philadelphia in 2008. “Unless we perfect our union by understanding we have different stories.”
But the president was not in a jam, himself, Tuesday night, when he arrived in the very windy city of Chicago for his farewell address before a rapturous crowd at McCormick Place. Obama is home free. Ten days left in his term, then he can devote himself to building a library glorifying himself, watching his younger daughter finish high school, lowering his golf handicap, and musing over the 7-figure deals corporations will dangle before the former president.
No, it is America itself that is in a tough spot now. At least the part that is black or brown, Asian or Hispanic, gay or lesbian or transgendered, liberal or those struggling to maintain a more than passing acquaintance with the world of fact. Both those horrified by Donald Trump’s promises, as well those counting on them, though the latter don’t know it yet. We’re all facing four years of the Trump Administration, a sideshow carnival of hourly outrage while the Republican wrecking crew that controls both houses of Congress leaps to undermine ethics, gut environmental controls, scrap safety regulations, and slash taxes for the rich and health care for the poor.
Obama Tuesday addressed this with his typical cool remove. No tears today. No shouts. Just as the Republicans pretend his administration was a disaster, he chose to pretend he leaves a country glowing with grace. He sees a nation “even more optimistic than when we started.” Maybe Russia is, but it’s hard to see the advent of Trump as a time of optimism, unless you are among the gulled millions who figure anybody smart enough to inherit so much wealth has to know how to run a country.
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The president lauded “the peaceful transfer of power,” which might not have been the case had Hillary Clinton won, judging by Trump’s winking threats. Obama set the bar so low that even the 45th president could hop over it.
Not to be too hard on Obama. He didn’t have to come. Before he rides off into the sunset, he returned to the place where he made his name to puff on the guttering flame of hope, urging us to somehow keep it alive in the reactionary downpour pounding on our roofs.
“Democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity,” he said, failing to add, “which is not what we have now or in the foreseeable future.” He did allow that “a post-racial America was never realistic.” Thanks for the news bulletin, Mr. President, but we’re there ahead of you.
How will this final speech stand with other classic presidential farewells? There was no echoing warning like Eisenhower’s caution against the “military-industrial complex.” It was more like a greatest hits reprise of past speeches that worked so well, then. But now we’re on to a new crisis, and his language of hope sounded — to me anyway — flat, lifeless. And I was in the hall.
There have been presidents who warned against what we’re facing now. George Washington didn’t laud an imaginary solidarity in his famous farewell, but cautioned against a country fractured by disunity.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries have perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism,” he wrote in his brief, written farewell.
“The spirit of revenge” could be a chapter heading for the history of the 115th Congress.
Washington warned that a leader “more fortunate than his competitors” might come along and build “his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
Man that rings a bell. Public liberty isn’t ruined yet. But the crowbars and pickaxes are being assembled in Washington, the task begun even as the throng at McCormick Place cheered.Tweets by @neilsteinberg