On a determinedly optimistic night in Chicago, the departing president offers a call to rebuild our trust in truth.
By David M. Perry
Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois, on January 10th, 2017. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Barack Obama gave a farewell address tonight, trying to set a historical narrative in place that might withstand whatever Donald Trump brings with him. Every president thinks about his (and sadly still, it’s all his)legacy, but the historic nature of the Obama presidency has been determined — really overdetermined — since the moment he was elected.
To be a historian confronting the end of the Obama presidency is to recognize how much randomness came together in order to form this moment, even while knowing our understanding is imperfect. It wasn’t inevitable. Al Gore could have won. George W. Bush could have read the 9/11 memo. John Kerry could have retaliated differently against swift-boat slurs. Hillary Clinton could have competed differently for caucus states, then signed up Obama as her vice president. Trump’s win feels even more unlikely in the broad gaze of the possible, driven by humans making decisions, good and bad, misguided and resolute. Here we are.
It was 40 degrees and raining as the crowds made their way to McCormick Place, the giant convention center by the lake just to the south — but not on the South Side — of Chicago’s downtown. Winds whipping off the lake were blowing debris off a construction site onto the road, so several access points were closed long before security worried about escorting in a motorcade. As Chicago days in January go, the parking attendant remarked to me, at least we weren’t getting snow pouring onto Lake Shore Drive and shutting the whole thing down. Ten years a Chicagoan myself, I smiled and agreed that we were pretty lucky.
Here we are. The Obama era is over.
We were all trying to smile and pretend to feel lucky. Somewhere, we knew, Trump trolls were sitting by, ready to clink their mugs of Liberal Tears, so don’t let them see you cry. But then Eddie Vedder and the Chicago Children’s choir sang “People are the power,” and the rock star said, haltingly: “They can’t take back what this great man, what this great nation, has instilled in our hearts. I’m so proud my kids got to see that,” and the sadness of the cheers became audible. Next to me, a journalist remarked to a colleague, “People are the power, that was his message.” Past tense. Another: “I’m not ready.”
But here we are. The Obama era is over.
Obama knows it. He’s a realist. When the crowd tried drowning out a would-be heckler with cries of “four more years!,” Obama coolly replied, “I can’t do that.” And yet, the opening of the speech had power as he talked about the history of the American Dream. Within the cavernous room, the sound echoed as he drew diverse moments and groups into that history, citing the journeys along the Underground Railroad, the crossing of the Rio Grande, the storming of Omaha Beach. “Not that our nation has been flawless from the start,” he said, “but we’ve shown our capacity to change.”
The acoustics were not perfect, and so the president’s voice, filtered through the PA system, softened, and he took a more serious tone, almost conversational. It suited the moment, because he wasn’t urging Americans to vote, but to understand. Progress, he allowed, isn’t simple: “For every two steps forward, it feels we take one step back.” When he said, “We’re going to have to forge a new social compact,” the crowd cheered.
“Social compact,” especially when followed by an articulation of the ways racial differences erode class solidarity among struggling peoples, is not a phrasing I’ve heard from Obama, though he may have said it before. It resonates with the term, “social contract,” a concept with which Enlightenment philosophers struggled in their quest to explain how societies work, how they fail, and how we can do better. It offered a key to the speech, one that took it beyond the litany of accomplishments, acknowledgment of challenges, and endearments to his loved ones.
The whole speech was, in fact, fueled by echoes of the Enlightenment, or at least the Enlightenment as we imagine it now. He spoke of our founders’ approach to practical problem solving as being “born of the Enlightenment.” He implied that George Washington, too, feared the rise of propaganda and deceit as a core threat to American Democracy, citing that famous first farewell address. The Obama vision is one that “does not require conformity,” but does require honest engagement, debate, and “a basic sense of solidarity.” Here, too, he looked back, saying:
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken … to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;” that we should preserve it with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.
Meanwhile, one of the loudest roars of the night came at the simple declaration that “science and reason matter.”
We could do worse than pursue a new Enlightenment. We’ve already got the global chaos and seemingly intensifying partisan and cultural divisions. We may as well try and get some good philosophy predicated on individual liberty, religious tolerance, and good constitutional governance.