Giving his farewell address in his adopted hometown of Chicago, President Obama was surrounded by staff, family and well-wishers. He ticked off the challenges facing America and his accomplishments over the past eight years. Obama reminded the nation that he entered the presidency with the U.S. economy on the verge of collapsing. He chose not to mention that the prior Republican President and Congress were responsible for this predicament with their drive for deregulation, tax cuts and unpaid-for wars. He then retold how his policies helped create the longest stretch of job creation in U.S. history, re-established the auto industry, helped usher in marriage equality and health care expansion to 20 million people. As he noted, for all the things Obama was not able to and or not willing to do, the country is being left in a much better place than when he took office.
However, as the nation’s first Black President exits the White House, the federal government is fully controlled by a Republican party that is actively seeking to roll back and repeal his legislative accomplishments and, hence, his legacy. The incoming President-elect Trump appealed to white America’s fear and anxiety about racial and ethnic changes, which galvanized the needed support for his “victory.” Trump basically promised to restore white people to their “rightful” place as owners of the country and to improve their collective economic lot. The election campaign was a brutal mix of insults and fearmongering, particularly on the Republican side. Unfortunately for the Obamas and the Democrats, Michelle Obama’s embrace of a new creed to ‘Go high when they go low’ did not win the day. The person who went the lowest actually won the election, if not the majority vote. Obama took some sly swipes at the incoming President-elect and the Republican party’s hard right-wing core, but he remained true to his nature, embodying the hopefulness of America, even while the underbelly rises to claim victory.
Obama not only offered an eloquent defense of his own accomplishments but also of the American experiment in democratic governance and embracing standard notions of American exceptionalism. Obama stated “… what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.”
He used his oratory gifts to pay deference to the ideas of the “Founding Fathers” and he idealized the notion of incremental change being one of the greatest attributes of the American system. In doing so, he recognized the issues of race and class that plague the country and pushed organizing and electoral participation as a way to make changes over time.
“Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes, it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels like we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”
Although forever optimistic, Obama also gave a series of warnings on the challenges that lie ahead from climate change, economic disparity, racial strife. President Obama fully acknowledged how his presidency did not usher in a post-racial society and that class and racial divisions remain a chief dividing factor within the United States.
What Obama did not do, similar to the Democrats at Jeff Sessions’ hearing earlier in the day, is offer a forceful rebuke to the other side. He and his party seem unable to match the Republican party’s ferocity in standing by its core beliefs. The Democratic party seems locked in a space of being apologetic for not using a strategy of dog-whistle politics that appeals to white racism. What remains is a party that is confused as to what it stands for. As its greatest orator leaves the stage in a somewhat humbled position and with the Democrats unexpectedly in tatters, Obama’s farewell may have been a farewell for the party as well, at least for the next four years.