After eight years, few lines from Barack Obama’s Presidential speeches stay in mind. For all his literary and oratorical gifts, he didn’t coin the kinds of phrases that stick with repetition, as if his distaste for politics generally—the schmoozing, the fakery—extended to the fashioning of slogans. He rarely turned to figurative language, and he never stooped to “Read my lips,” or even “Ask not what your country can do for you.” His most memorable phrase, “Yes we can,” spoke to the audacious odds of his own run for the Presidency, not a clear political vision. He sought to persuade by explaining and reasoning, not by simplifying or dramatizing—a form of respect that the citizenry didn’t always deserve.
This aversion to rhetoric, like Obama’s aloofness from Congress, is a personal virtue that hurt him politically. It’s connected to his difficulty in sustaining public support for his program and his party. Even the President’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, was a master of the poetic sound bite.
Obama’s farewell address from Chicago last week was one of the very best speeches of his Presidency. He had one overriding message: that American democracy is threatened—by economic inequality, by racial division, and, above all, by the erosion of democratic habits and institutions. Its urgency gave the speech an unusual rhetorical punch: “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life”; “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves”; “We sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.” Lines like these might not prove deathless, but because of their bluntness, and because the times are desperate, they hit hard.
Politicians are always letting the public off the hook—it might be the most unforgivably dishonest thing they do. Obama was more candid than most, reminding Americans that the quality of our democracy depends on us—on our capacity to reason and to empathize, our attachment to facts, our willingness to get our hands dirty even when the political game seems sordid or futile. The key word of the speech was “citizen,” which Obama called “the most important office in a democracy,” one that he’ll embrace in his post-Presidency. His exhortations and implications of blame were nonpartisan: conservatives might have heard their denial of science called out, while liberals might have been stung by the allusion to fair-weather activism. Whites and non-whites alike were urged to imagine inhabiting a different person’s skin.
Perhaps there was a degree of self-blame, too. For all the achievements that Obama is able to claim—from bringing health insurance to twenty million Americans to building a framework for slowing climate change—he couldn’t deliver a healthy democracy. He didn’t have the political skill to advance his abiding vision of a United States of America. Maybe no leader could have, but Obama’s opponents made sure of his failure.
This article continues at [New Yorker] Parting Words