The sorrow of Barack Obama’s farewell address

Barack Obama’s final speech as president soared and—as madness swirls around America—saddened.

President Barack Obama wipes his tears as he speaks at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

President Barack Obama wipes his tears as he speaks at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

I was going to start this column with a joke. How could I not? Just minutes before Barack Obama was about to give his last address as President of the United States, his successor Donald Trump was angrily denying accusations he had paid Russian prostitutes to pee in front of him.

But Obama’s speech is over. He and Vice-President Joe Biden have hugged and walked off the stage. And I can’t muster a laugh.

Regardless of what you think of his presidency, Obama will be remembered as one of America’s great orators. His speech in Chicago was a stirring call to value and safeguard American democracy. It was both graceful and melancholy, and a warning that people need to work harder, to engage more, and to listen better if the United States is ever going to achieve its promise. It was a sombre farewell.

MORE: For the record, the transcript of the speech

He warned that progress is not a straight line. “For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back, but the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion.” And, to be fair, the last eight years has seen a great deal of that forward motion.

When he came to office in 2008, after all, both America and the world were slipping into the Great Recession. The United States and its allies were mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, and seven years after 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism seemed greater than ever.

Now, leaving office in 2016, the stock market has tripled, unemployment has been halved, household net worth is 50 per cent higher, and the economy overall is 11 per cent larger than its pre-Obama peak. The troops have mostly come home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Osama bin Laden is dead.

MORE: Jonathan Chait on whether Obama’s legacy will remain after Trump

Obama can’t take credit for all of this, but there is no denying he helped. He recapitalized the banks and brought in reforms to stabilize the financial sector. His administration rescued the auto industry, and increased exports. Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, providing medical insurance to over 20 million Americans who had previously gone without. He championed the Paris Climate Treaty, dramatically expanded renewable energy, and protected vast tracts of wilderness.

Nonetheless, right now, it doesn’t feel like progress. The prison in Guantánamo Bay is still open. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq go on, and new ones in Syria, South Sudan and Ukraine are metastasizing. North Korea claims it has an intercontinental nuclear warhead, and the Chinese are building “significant” naval bases in the South China Sea. Every week, there is another mass shooting. Hate crimes are on the rise. The Arctic ice sheets are melting.

And Donald Trump is about to be president.

MORE: Searching for the meaning of Obama’s legacy in Baton Rouge

Right now, there is a sense that Trump is Obama’s legacy: that the 44th President didn’t support Hillary enough, or engage white Americans enough, or reach out to Republicans enough. But Obama didn’t elect Trump. Obama was not responsible for the rise of the Tea Party, or the collapse of the moderate right. The paradox is that the same people who voted for a liberal black man with an Islamic name also elected a conservative Kremlin apologist with a compulsion for lies and insults. Democracy doesn’t always make sense. The electorate’s moods shift and double back. The people change their views and their votes. As the American poet Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

Nonetheless, the fact remains, as Obama was about to take the stage in Chicago, allegations surfaced that Russia is blackmailing Trump with videotapes of him and prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room. Earlier in the day, news broke that five of Trump’s cabinet nominees had given more than $100,000 in donations to the senators running their confirmation hearings. Just before that, his nominee to be America’s next attorney-general had to repudiate his support of the Ku Klux Klan. And a few hours before that, the president-elect met with an infamous vaccine denier about joining a committee to look at vaccine safety.

I know that there is a joke in here, somewhere. I am sure of it. But tonight, right now, this all feels more like a tragedy than a comedy.


The sorrow of Barack Obama’s farewell address

  1. Thank you, Mr. Gilmore. No irony intended, because I loved your essay, but it seems like you should have added, “Amen” at the end, because I felt like I was reading a prayer for the dead.

  2. Perhaps this article is a little too much favorable in opinion, regarding Mr. Barrack Obama. It seems like almost all western media is now biased towards the facts of what the United States administration has actually done to other peaceful countries regarding secret proxy wars, than blaming all other parties for it & never themselves. Especially regarding ISIS. Mr Obama has been very hypocritical and has had a certain media influence to try to change people’s view in their favor. In regards to him finally leaving office, he has tried to change the american public’s way of thinking before Mr. Trump takes office. It didn’t help when the Democratic party lost, mostly because american people are beginning to see their lies. His retaliatory actions is to blame Russia for hacking the election without any evidence, I find this a sad way to leave his office. Actually kind of comical and at the same time a lot of people are waking up. More people believe Wikileaks than the american government. Is there anymore credibility left, or will the media continue to be one sided.

  3. The “great orator” part is especially evident. Although these speeches are mostly written by a team, I cannot for the life of me imagine Donald Trump writing and delivering (or even reading) a speech of this magnitude and depth. That speaks volumes of the change about to take place.

    • Exactly. Compare this speech to Trumps pathetic “me, me, me” performance at his press conference … it is to weep.

  4. If Trump was looking for an example of ‘what is presential?’ he should replay this speech. Brilliant and all class.

  5. “as madness swirls around America”….yes indeed.

    • Thank goodness he had one skill-oration-because he sure couldn’t run the country.

  6. Obama’s farewell speech was great… unlike his Presidency.
    Obama’s real legacy:
    President Donald J. Trump. A Republican majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. Pres. Trump’s choice of the ninth Supreme Court Justice. 9 trillion dollars added to the National Debt. Race relations set back 50 years. Political corrupting of the Justice Department, the FBI, and Tax Department.

    Nothing becomes Obama’s Presidency more than his leaving of the Office.

    • You are wrong. President Obama was faced with a senate and a congress that was bent on complete obstruction from his first day in office. He was not perfect but he managed to move the richest country in the world to finally provide 20 million people (more than half the population of Canada) with health care. While the program certainly has its problems, it will remain even after juggling by the president elect and it will remain his legacy. What do you remember that the Bushes, Carter or Clinton achieved?

      • No. you are wrong. From 2009 to 2011, Obama had complete control of both Houses of Congress, (Senate and House of Representatives) and failed to pass any meaningful legislation other than the disastrous “Obamacare” Act which is now a moribund failure and is about to be revoked and replaced with a viable Republican health care plan.
        A majority of Americans are against Obamacare which is a major reason for the “stunning and unexpected” Democratic Party defeat in the recent election.