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Barack Obama's Long Goodbye

The President's State of the Union address hints at a deepening anxiety over his legacy—and what we can expect from the rest of his term.
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on January 12, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)

The presidential farewell has no real precedent in America's political history outside of George Washington's legendary letter to the nation. Published in Daved Claypole's American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796, and later re-worked into a pamphlet, Washington used his "farewell address" after nearly 20 years of service to remind the young nation of the pitfalls and possibilities facing the republic: the divisiveness of political factions, the importance of the separation of powers, the necessity of avoiding foreign entanglements—all topped by a request that he be forgiven by the American people for his failings in office.

Washington, who'd already set an informal rule of the American executive branch by declining to seek the presidency for a third term, resigned to his plantation like the one-time Roman dictator Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, his obligation to faithfully protect the republic met with one final, tender rallying cry.

There have been few memorable presidential farewells since then. Outgoing presidents rarely deliver final homilies like Washington's ahead of their successor on Inauguration Day, and late-term joshing in the White House press pool—or even George W. Bush's poignant East Room farewell—lack the same gravitas and panache as a joint session of Congress. Nixon's departure from the White House is the most vivid in recent memory, but for all the wrong reasons.

In this sense, the closest thing modern presidents get to a real Washingtonian farewell address is their final State of the Union, constitutionally mandated but politically insouciant amid the cacophony of the presidential and congressional contests on the horizon.

Unencumbered by political calculus, the president, cloaked in the apex of his constitutional power (minus standing on the battlefield), can leave the American polity with one final swan song on the future of the republic. President Obama recognized this on Tuesday evening when he told the assembled members of Congress that he didn't want to discuss a slate of policy proposals (a comment that, if accidentally, diminished the criminal justice platform that's been in the national conversation for the last year). "I don't want to talk just about the next year," Obama said. "I want to focus on the next five years, 10 years, and beyond."

Despite Obama's emphasis on the future, his subsequent address made clear that the days of Washington's finale, where the State of the Union was once a political treatise, are long past. It was expected that Obama, politically emboldened by a hot streak on disparate issues from Cuba to international trade to LGBT rights, would take something of a victory lap around the United States Capitol. And he did: His tone was relaxed and casual, jokey but impassioned, cognizant of his limitations as a lame-duck president while still patently aspirational, with an authenticity that echoed a Kennedy or a Clinton. We sort of expected Barack Obama, inspiration figure; if not that, at least Barack Obama, orator.

But despite his accomplishments, Obama still faces the question of his legacy and, more importantly, the task of bringing closure to the political message that put him in the White House in 2008. This is the same politician who, eight years after "hope and change," has found his inspirational rhetoric deflated by the realities of politics in Washington, from the lack of political capital in the aftermath of his health-care reform fight to the weight of crisis after political crisis. Al Jazeera's Gregg Levine puts it best: Appearing before the nation unburdened, Obama faced questions about both if "change is still possible in the final year of his presidency, and whether anyone in the voting public believes he changed anything at all." Obama had one final chance to make the case for his legacy, a long goodbye from a weary but hopeful servant praying that he fulfilled his rhetorical promise to the nation.

This was painfully obvious in Obama's appeal to the singular force that helped get him elected—the message of change:

We live in a time of extraordinary change—change that's re-shaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It's change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It's change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.

America has been through big changes before—wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the "dogmas of the quiet past." Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America's promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did—because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril—we emerged stronger and better than before.

Yes, the Obama administration has been consequential on an impressive slate of matters both foreign and domestic, but only time will tell what its long-term consequences actually are. Yes, the Obama administration has created 14.1 million jobs in the past seven years, but American wages remain stagnant and an entire subset of society has been left adrift by the decimation of manufacturing jobs. Yes, the uninsured rate has fallen from 15.4 percent  to 8.8 percent, but Obamacare will always be remembered for its bungled rollout and the long-term impacts on the deficit are still unclear. Yes, the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan dropped from more than 180,000 to less than 14,000, but how many militant Islamists have joined the Islamic State since then? And even if American soldiers have been replaced by drones, the Obama administration's hidden regime of death from above leaves much to be desired in the way of moral and legal legitimacy—especially when 90 percent of the people killed by drone strikes are not the target.

This isn't to condemn President Obama as a Machiavellian liar, or even as a hypocrite; after all, all politicians are hypocrites, especially when they have the privilege of Teddy Roosevelt's infamous Bully Pulpit. But his appeal to the politics of hope and change baked into a desperate victory lap feels hollow and empty, an attempt to shore up his legacy by convincing America that he delivered on his impossible rhetorical promises of the 2008 election. We can see this in his appeal, toward the end of his address, to a better form of politics, the "politics of hope":

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That's one of our strengths too. Our founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn't matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

Too many Americans feel that way right now. It's one of the few regrets of my presidency— that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.

But this transcendent form of politics that's infused Obama's optimism indicates that he learned the wrong lesson. It's Obama's naivete, his coolness, his ambivalence to the muck of Washington politics, that have hamstrung his legislative ambitions. Blowing all his political capital on health-care reform, despite the legislation's myriad benefits, doomed the Obama administration to a cycle of thrust and parry with the Republican Congress on everything from budgets to immigration reform, reducing him to a lame duck president by the end of his second year in office. Where most presidents enjoy a 100-day mandate (thanks, FDR) and an embattled lull before the freedom of their twilight months, Obama has spent the majority of his presidency protecting his mantra of "hope and change" and his legacy of transcending politics to the point of political intransigence.

Yes, Obama has accomplished a lot—opening relations with Cuba, forging the TPP, fighting Ebola in West Africa, killing Osama bin Laden, striking a deal with Iran—but time will tell how these projects turn out. With his final State of the Union, Obama demanded his legacy now, early, like the Nobel Peace Prize he never should have been awarded as an incentive. Despite the soaring rhetoric, the narrative was clear: You voted for the messiah, and I sort of delivered. It resembled the "Mission Accomplished" banner George W. Bush flew on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.

This brings me back to George Washington. Yes, any comparison to Washington is inherently nonsense, because it's like comparing a president to Jesus Christ. But where Washington used his final "address" to the nation as a moment of political philosophy, Obama's return to the language of hope and change betrays a modern selfishness that undermines the noble intentions of rising above the dirty politics of D.C. A better use of the State of the Union would have been to say, well, less: to recognize and analyze the constraints of the executive, the realities of politics (beyond allusions to the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump), and make a Washingtonian plea rather than litigate the veracity of hope and change in the context of his accomplishments.

President Obama delivered a full-throated defense of his legacy in lieu of a slate of policy proposals, as he should have; according to Al Jazeera, the White House "long ago acknowledged—internally and eventually externally—that his tenure is in a post-legislative phase." We can call this period of his presidency a "long goodbye," perhaps: While all presidents fixate on their legacy, Obama's feels a bit more precarious.

We can expect to see more tears, like the ones he shed over gun control in recent weeksmore fiery speeches on the routineness of mass shootings, and more rawness and realness than we've ever seen from our commander-in-chief as a reminder that, yes, he is hope and change embodied. But in an effort to deliver a Washingtonian farewell, the president's message of progress fell flat. History will be the final judge of Barack Obama—but if his final speech is any indication, history might find that the president's mantra of change left us filled more with doubt than hope.