Barack Obama’s Chicago speech was more of a final campaign rally than a farewell address — and that made it a missed opportunity.
It was part a reminder of his legacy, part an argument for the correctness of his approach, part a defense of policies that are already under assault.
Democrats will say that if he had had a chance to run again, Obama would have beaten Donald Trump. And on some level, Obama himself seemed to want to have that contrast drawn, that conclusion articulated.
But the speech was too political to be properly solemn and lasting. And that detracted from a more important message about democracy.
Don’t get me wrong. I consider this president the best of my lifetime, which makes the coming transition all the more lamentable. We are about to shift from a leader who appealed to the better angels of our nature to one who played to a dark tangle of fear, anger, resentment, and ignorance. From a leader who tried to foster greater inclusiveness and understanding to a demagogue ready, even eager, to stoke grievances to further his personal interests.
From a president whose personal conduct was never in doubt to one whose behavior regularly is and long has been — and likely will continue to be.
Obama’s accomplishments are real and substantial, despite the attempt of conservative partisans to discount an economic recovery they would have praised to the sky had it come on their watch, or to saddle him with an increase in the national debt caused largely by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. That’s as tooth-achingly silly as hearing those who have little grasp of the complexities of health care (or, apparently, recollection of the status quo ante), claim, contrary to the evidence, that the Affordable Care Act has been a disaster for the country.
Having rallied around an incoming president who is the most unapologetically narcissistic and self-aggrandizing figure in modern political memory, conservatives will predictably castigate the outgoing president as supremely egotistical for this speech.
And they’ll do it without irony. That, at least, will be amusing in its absurdity.
But what Obama sacrificed by going that route was the opportunity to say something grave and resonant to the nation.
Obama would have been better served to focus on one or two issues in an effort to elevate them above partisanship. He might, for example, have stressed the importance of following through with the Paris Agreement on climate change and of maintaining the successful nuclear deal with Iran.
If he had fused that with his message about the importance of honoring American values, of the necessity of a common denominator of civic understanding, this would have been a far more effective address.
As it was, his speech delighted Obama’s many admirers. But that’s a transient thing. And in these uncertain times, the nation needed something more.