On January 10, 2017 President of the United States Barack Obama gave his farewell address to the nation over which he has presided for the last eight years. This speech may not be remembered among Obama’s greatest oratories, although it echoed with the yearnings of his most eloquent deliveries, perhaps none more so than its insistence on the capacity of America to deliver on its unfulfilled promise of assuring the equal dignity and worth of all its people – blacks and whites, slaves and free, men and women, immigrants and natives, gays and straights. The list is long. But rhetorical excellence was never the purpose of this speech. Instead, this speech had a single intent: to frame the historical interpretation within which the Obama presidency will be viewed. In this regard this may very well be the most significant of all of Obama’s speeches.
Historians both now and in the future will measure the Obama presidency against two overarching criteria. As America’s first Black President, Obama’s ascension to the presidency raises fundamental questions about the history of racism in America and how Obama has dealt with the racial anxieties which continue to bedevil the United States. Indeed, Obama instructs us that American racism is “a threat to our democracy [that is] as old as the nation itself. After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and divisive force in our society.”
The election of Donald Trump to succeed Obama is, in fact, an affirmation of Obama’s observation. Since 1960, no candidate for the American presidency has run a more racially divisive campaign. And 62 million Americans cast their votes in support of this campaign. For those dismayed by Trump’s election, however, and as bitter a pill as this is to swallow, they need to be reminded that 70 million Americans constituting a convincing 54 per cent of the American electorate voted against Trump. Hence, whereas the peculiarities of the American electoral system has allowed a minority President to win the highest office in the land, it also underlines the truth of Obama’s observation that “I have lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago. You can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.”
All American presidents, of course, would also be judged by how they have used the American presidency to change the direction of the nation. By this measurement the Obama presidency has been an enormous success. His predecessor, President George Bush, passed on to him the worst American economy in living memory, an American military engaged in two full-scale wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a country mired in debt and despair.
Obama is therefore rightfully triumphant when he proclaims; “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse the Great Recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history, if I had told you we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons without firing a single shot, if I had told you we would secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million people, you might have said that our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did.”
Yet the full measure of the Obama presidency goes beyond the racial and economic successes which are measurable. It is to be found instead within the grace with which he carried out his responsibilities. For no American president has been savaged and disrespected by his opponents anywhere near the levels of opprobrium directed at the Obamas’ occupation of the White House. It was unprecedented for a congressman to shout out during the State of the Union and accuse the President of lying. Never before had political commentators made the President’s spouse the target of rampant sexist and racist dehumanization. But through it all, President Obama, Michelle Obama, and their daughters stayed above the fray. Never for a single instant did they sully the presidency, for as Michelle Obama said so well, “when they go low, we go high.” President Obama struck a similar chord in his farewell address, saying towards Michelle, “You took on a role you didn’t ask for,” and indeed, as a Black woman, was never meant for her, “and made it your own with grace and grit.”
It is that grace under fire which may indeed be the greatest legacy of the Obama presidency.