Barack Obama’s farewell address on Tuesday night was what you would expect Barack Obama’s farewell address to be. It could have been generated by an Obama app. He spoke of a more perfect union. He said that he wasn’t the change—we were the change. He arrived at the “creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written.” He reminded Americans of their better angels, and called us to presume “a reservoir of goodness” in others. (The phrase is the writer Marilynne Robinson’s, whom Obama has often invoked.) Atticus Finch made an anti-racist cameo (the heroic Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the murkier segregationist Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman). Yes We Can became Yes We Did.
Obama appealed to the audience in generational terms, as he always has. That appeal, I came to believe when I was trying to write about his speeches, was Obama’s rhetorical signature. Now it seemed like he was just speaking to listeners who are younger than he is. As political horizons have narrowed, generational horizons widen. He was avuncular toward “this generation coming up—unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic—I’ve seen you in every corner of the country.” It felt like a graduation speech: “You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.” Generations in Obama’s speeches have always been in a state of arrival, but this time it’s hard not to think that the next generation has arrived too late.
The content of the speech was conventional. The context was a little off. The acoustic echo in the room was distracting and inadvertently elegiac. It made me think of Lou Gehrig’s farewell address at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when he called himself the luckiest luckiest luckiest man man man on the face face face of the earth earth earth. Also distracting was the image, revealed a few hours earlier, of the next President urging Russian prostitutes to pee on each other in a Moscow hotel bed where Barack and Michelle Obama had once slept.
The only presidential farewell addresses people remember or talk about are the ones that sublimate the failures of an administration into cautions for the future. If George Washington’s farewell address is remembered, it is for warning the young republic against foreign political influence and entanglements. That warning only had teeth because the young republic was in fact already embroiled in the international politics of a revolutionary age. Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell, warned about the “military industrial complex” that had congealed during his own administration.
Before the election, I would have speculated that the grandest failure Obama would have to distill into caution was environmental. The best one could hope for would be, at long last, a forceful speech about the environment. That is not what happened. (Browsing the gallery of presidential farewells, Jimmy Carter’s address rings truer. Carter called the earth “a small and fragile and beautiful blue globe, the only home we have.”)
The day after the election, Obama told reporters that “this is not the apocalypse.” Helpful! Obama has since held fast to the American civil religion, of which he has been the chief minister for eight years. Like all religions, American civil religion includes an eschatology, and in eschatological terms, Obama’s speeches demonstrate a secular postmillennialism. The term is arcane but useful. It is the progressive vision of a millennium achieved gradually, as human action makes way for the Kingdom of God. It is best captured in Obama’s favorite line from Martin Luther King, that the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice with our participation in it. The sky may turn temporarily gray, but it won’t fall. It was also the eschatological orientation of social gospelers and 19th-century reformers. It is almost impossible for a liberal President not to have this broad orientation. American civil religion does not allow the acknowledgment of entropy or inexorable decline, or the possibility that there is no millennium at all.
There was a pause, though. It came when Obama was gliding over the heroic history of the American spirit, “the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.” He said that this spirit “took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral,” “cures diseases and put a computer in every pocket.” This spirit, he said, “allowed us to resist the lure of fascism . . .”—pause—“. . . and tyranny during the Great Depression, to build a post-World War II order with other democracies.” It’s been a while since a President has had to speak of fascism as something that has a lure. In American rhetoric, fascism has been a specter rather than a temptation. But here we are.
Obama then named the forces now challenging the post-World War II order, among them “autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets in open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.” His description of these foreign autocrats applied more accurately to his successor: “A contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable. An intolerance of dissent and free thought. A belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.” This is why it is hard to be sentimental and patriotic about the “peaceful transfer of power.”
One wonders what a farewell address would look like in the apocalypse. Maybe it would be as incongruously optimistic as this one was. Maybe TV commentators would evaluate the speech like it was a figure-skating routine, and call it a great performance or complain that he didn’t stick the landing. Maybe we would be justified in our nostalgia for eloquence and basic decency. Maybe the camera would cut to tearful faces, and those tears would also be justified. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to tell (because the apocalypse would be happening) whether the perfect continuity of this speech with the rest of Obama’s oeuvre was a proof of our outgoing President’s dignity, or of an embarrassing quietism. In the end, farewell addresses say little beyond farewell.