Remember Barack Obama? He was easy to forget in the, um, shower of news today. But Obama had a plan for his final speech Tuesday night: observe the courtesy of not tearing Donald Trump limb from limb, but poke at all the values Trump threatens. Obama’s farewell address was a subtweet.
Obama appeared onstage in Chicago’s McCormick Place just after 9 p.m. ET with that familiar stroll and cool, half-hearted wave. “Hello, Chicago!” he said. “It’s good to be home!”
CNN promised a “dramatic reinterpretation of a presidential farewell address.” But the speech was notable for what was familiar. When the crowd wouldn’t stop applauding, Obama began with the obligatory, wan political joke: “You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody’s following instructions.” He quoted Washington’s farewell address. He thanked Michelle and Joe.
Obama’s theme was “the state of our democracy.” He hung the speech on four perceived threats: economic security, race relations, the “selective sorting of the facts,” and Americans taking their enlightened system for granted.
The speech’s weakest section was the first, if only because Hillary Clinton so profoundly failed to convince a majority of the Electoral College that the economy wasn’t a sputtering mess. Here was Obama’s belated rebuttal: The stock market “shatter[ed] records,” he said, and the “unemployment rate is near a 10-year low.” He tweaked Republicans struggling to craft a replacement to Obamacare, saying that if they came up with something better, he would happily endorse it.
Obama was better on race, a subject he has been brilliant on for eight-plus years. One by one, he turned his laser focus to different groups and pleaded for empathy. To Africans Americans: Think of the “middle-aged white man” whose job was nicked by robots. To whites: The “effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s.” Moreover, minorities didn’t demand special treatment; they demanded “equal treatment.” To the “native-born”: Immigrant children are just as “worthy of love as our own.” (Here, I couldn’t help but think of “la promesa de Obama” — his promise, eight years ago, to put forward an immigration bill within one year of taking office.)
And here Obama unveiled one of his best lines: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
The loss of presidential power means an inevitable loss of gravitas, and much of the speech felt like it was delivered by a dorky but optimistic civics teacher. Don’t argue with people on the internet so much! Down with gerrymandering! Remember Atticus Finch! Remember Kitty Hawk! (Kitty Hawk?)
And then there were the arrows fired directly at Trump and his minions’ black hearts. Summoning Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, Obama demanded that America “reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are.” Taking aim at the spate of voter-suppression laws, he said, “We should make it easier, not harder, to vote.”
More broadly, Obama warned against letting fear creep into American politics in a way it hasn’t since the immediate years after 9/11. This was also a subtweet, for what was Trump’s electoral message other than fear of minorities, of foreign invaders, of “economic anxiety”? Obama was talking about ISIS (ISIL, as he insists on calling it) but he could have been talking about the new administration: “They cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.”
The speech was delivered in McCormick Place instead of the cozier confines of the White House. That gave the whole night a weird affect. You could hear the feedback from the loudspeakers on CNN, creating an echo effect. The crowd seemed excited and ready to burst yet was slightly muted. (They gave a big cheer when Obama said the idea of a “postracial America” turned out to be bonkers.)
Rallies are typically for victories — victories won or soon to be won. Obama’s team lost, humiliatingly. A speech full of hope and ideas for the next four years felt like it could have been more comfortably delivered in front of a chalkboard. Obama won’t be president much longer; he’ll be America’s most famous community organizer.
The best part of the speech, in fact, was the most obligatory. When Obama turned to the thank-yous, he let himself slide into emotional terra incognita. It felt like there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Joe Biden — his veep-cum-“brother” — gave him a wink and a jaunty index-finger point.
When he thanked Michelle, Obama put away the falsity of subtweeting and spoke from the heart. “You took on a role you didn’t ask for,” Obama told her. Surfing off Michelle’s line at the Democratic National Convention about living in a house built by slaves, Obama said, “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody.” Along with her husband’s election, it is the couple’s proudest and biggest achievement. Even a Republican Congress can’t erase that.
As he spoke about his wife, Obama pulled out a handkerchief and wiped a tear from his eye. I was moved. I’d like to know hope. I’d like to say, once more with feeling, “Yes, we can!” But I have a sinking feeling. Give it a few hours, and Obama’s tears will be fake news.