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On Tuesday night President Obama is scheduled to deliver a farewell address to the nation, following a tradition that presidents before him have done, particularly in the television era.
Should Obama review these past addresses, he would find different approaches that have fit each individual’s character and the political and cultural moment of the time.
It is important to remember that few of these speeches stand the test of time. George Washington’s farewell address, of course, has been considered so important that it is recited in the US Senate every year. Dwight Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex reframed how Americans thought about the booming defense industry. Bill Clinton’s farewell address? Well if you need to reference it, it is on the C-SPAN website somewhere.
These speeches, by definition, are important in framing how these presidents want their time in office to be remembered. The interesting thing with Obama is that the first line of his legacy has been set for eight years: the first African-American US president. What Obama might be trying to do in his farewell address is to argue what the second line about his presidency should be remembered for. His eight years in office offer different topics to discuss: the recession, growing income inequality, racial tensions, political polarization, an expansion of gay rights, his health care law, two wars, capturing Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal, and efforts to curb climate change. Which one of these topics he chooses to emphasize will be closely watched and discussed.
A review of past farewell speeches shows essentially three approaches Obama can take: forward looking, looking back to remind of accomplishments during tenure, expressing regrets.
Here is what Obama could say under each model.
In comparing farewell addresses, one thing that matters a great deal is whether the incumbent is being followed by a member of the same party. Given the great political differences between Obama and President-elect Donald Trump, one of the first decisions Obama must make about the speech is whether to address Trump directly or discuss something else.
By addressing Trump head on, he could speak either to Trump himself or to Obama’s own supporters about how to feel and what to do about the next four years. The hopeful mood that existed in Washington eight years ago when Obama entered office has been replaced by a more combative atmosphere.
But Obama could also spend more time talking about the world and America’s place in it. During Obama’s tenure the world became a much more complicated place. There are more players, not fewer, participating in global politics, and, internally, nations are searching for identity. During his eight years as president, the European Union weakened, an Arab Spring overturned regimes in a number of countries, China has both grown as an economic superpower and is nervously eyeing domestic politics and purposefully not engaging in some global affairs, like in the Middle East.
Where America fits in all this and how much Americans want to lead the world is a question that has evolved as the transition from George W. Bush doctrine of preemptive strike was replaced by Obama’s “leading from behind.”
At the same time, he could address how at home America is also becoming more diverse demographically. He could call for Americans to come together.
Looking back on accomplishments
No doubt Obama will try to frame his presidency as successful. As he did in his reelection, Obama will likely start by reminding when his presidency started — in the middle of the Great Recession.
Since then the economy has stabilized and the unemployment rate is down, yet most Americans are feeling uneasy about their own pocketbooks, as the recent election made clear.
Obama might try to offer some insight into the thinking behind a number of decisions he made, particularly on his use of executive orders.
If Obama does look back, however, it will likely not make a lot of news or be memorable since we have heard much of that before.
What could be particularly interesting is if Obama talked about the things he could not accomplish.
George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter took this approach while reflecting on their own challenges when it came to the economy and foreign policy.
Obama, for example, could explain why he was politically unable or personally unwilling to do more to stop the situation in Syria from getting worse.
However, probably Obama’s biggest failure was his inability to curb political polarization. America got to know Obama during his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston he talked about red states and blue states. During the 2008 election, he talked about how to transcend party politics. But he leaves a nation more divided than ever.
Yet, like every president before, Obama will be thankful for the opportunity and offer the phrase God Bless America for the last time a president.James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.