When does HOPE become false hope? This is the riddle of the Obama presidency, and Barack Obama’s answer, from the very first speech he gave as president-elect, has been clear and consistent. The night Obama won the 2008 election he told us that his victory is not the change his voters seek, “It is only the chance for us to make that change.” Last night, during his farewell address, he warned that the Constitution has no power, only the citizenry, the “anxious, jealous” guardians of democracy, can bring America’s founding document to life. HOPE will not die unless we, the people, kill it with self-pity, indifference, and cowardice.
Defining citizenship as a call to action rather than a status is essential for survival. If we live this truth as one of Obama’s great legacies, we owe him a debt. He has promised to do his part, as he tweeted last week that he “look[s] forward to standing with you as a citizen” once his term is through. If he is true to his word, Obama will use his platform and influence to live citizenship out loud, and fight alongside all who believe in civil rights and dignity for all. Obama’s farewell address contained clues as to what he sees as the key arenas in the years ahead, as he specifically cited battles over voting rights and protecting politics from big money and ethical decay. These are worthy causes in dire need of attention.
Despite Obama’s affirmation of citizenship and passionate call to action on Tuesday night, the speech felt slightly out of touch with reality. The elephant in the room was the explosive CNN report about President-elect Trump’s ties to Russia, released just hours before Obama took the stage. Intelligence chiefs gave both Trump and Obama unverified reports that Russia had compromising information about Trump’s personal life and business dealings, and that Trump’s team communicated with Russian intermediaries throughout the election process.
Obama would never mention such a thing during his farewell speech — it’s not his style. Many would argue that it would be irresponsible for the president to do so, given the intelligence agencies’ inability to independently confirm the information they received. However, Obama had to at least acknowledge the peculiar circumstances of Trump’s electoral victory, and the dangerous “post-truth” world we have been living in for months now.
Ours is a world where fake news spreads like wildfire over social media, government officials contradict themselves on a daily basis, and journalists weigh the costs and benefits of printing words like “Nazi.” Obama warned that democracies cannot function without science, reason, and a basic agreement about what constitutes factual knowledge. But he framed recent developments largely as outgrowths of partisan rancor and media polarization, and as threats still yet to arrive in full. In reality, there is evidence that the attack on truth has been deliberate, largely one-sided, and painfully effective.
Another piece of Obama’s speech that missed the mark was his treatment of racial inequality. As a president subject to abhorrent and life-threatening racism from the day he took office, Obama has carried himself with astonishing poise and dignity, and shown courage in talking about race at times other officials would not. He has always rejected the notion that his election meant America was “postracial,” and last night he acknowledged that in many respects, race relations are no better than they were decades ago. He also called attention to the fact that discrimination did not die with Jim Crow, and remains a significant barrier to economic security, safety, and dignity for people of color.
There were at least two troublesome pieces of Obama’s discussion of race, however. First, he continued to call for empathy and plead with us to see similarities between white resentment and black suffering that simply do not exist. And second, all too often, Obama uses terms like “race” and “race relations” when he should be talking about racism. Racist and xenophobic appeals were central to the Trump campaign, hate crimes spiked immediately after the 2016 election, and Tuesday, Dylann Roof was sentenced to death for the mass murder he committed in South Carolina. Yet Obama did not name white supremacy.
Further, Obama did not note that the recent economic boom he touted has not closed the racial wealth gap. Economists Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton find that black high school graduates with some college education have a higher unemployment rate than whites who never finished high school at all, and black Americans’ economic standing relative to white Americans has not improved since the 1960s. Darity and Hamilton suggest that even if Obama were able to realize his policy agenda, the universalist policies the president champions would not affect the root causes of racial inequality, which are intergenerational wealth transfer, segregation, and discrimination.
The speech was far from perfect, but Obama did manage to avoid disaster by resisting the temptation to brazenly defend his record during his final address. Doing so would have been a betrayal of his public persona and overall message. Obama is supremely confident and he thrives in the spotlight, but his insistence that it’s about us, not him, as well as the emotion he shows when discussing his family, made him uniquely relatable. A different sort of president would have taken more credit and spent more time talking about the Affordable Care Act, which resulted in the enrollment of over 20 million Americans who previously lacked health insurance. A different sort of president might have walked us through his decision to implement the stimulus package and bail out the automobile industry when there was considerable debate about whether either move would stem the recession. A different sort of president would have called more attention to his decision to eviscerate the Defense of Marriage Act, and essentially legalize gay marriage throughout the United States. A different sort of president might have at least mentioned that he appointed a far greater proportion of women and people of color to the federal judiciary than any of his predecessors.
In a few days, a different sort of president is exactly what we will have. Obama’s farewell speech lasted less than an hour, but it feels like a very long goodbye.
Michael P. Jeffries is associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College