A few minutes before 9pm last Tuesday night I settled in front of one of several flat screen color televisions in my new townhouse in Wake Forest, North Carolina to watch President Obama’s farewell address to the nation. My thoughts were on what I consider the benchmark Presidential farewell address which I watch some 56 years earlier as a very young boy in front of my parents’ lone black and white television in their Cheektowaga, New York home. Could Barack Obama get over the extremely high bar set by Dwight Eisenhower? Let’s explore.
In 1961 Eisenhower, a retired Army general who was a hero of World War II, warned of the danger that the military-industrial complex would present for America in the future. Considering the source the observation was courageous and it proved to be some of the best advice Americans ever received from their President. Ike, as he was affectionately known, was passing the baton to a much younger John Kennedy in just three days. The election between Kennedy and Ike’s Vice President Richard Nixon had been close and many Americans were concerned about Kennedy’s youth and relative inexperience.
Tuesday night Obama was preparing to turn over the Oval Office to a political and policy novice in Donald Trump who won a relatively narrow Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton but fell almost 3 million popular votes short of her. Trump is anything but youthful and terrifies much of the nation.
Ike spoke from behind a White House desk. Obama chose to travel to his home town of Chicago and speak in front of a live audience of nearly 20,000. Obama, who has always had somewhat of a rock star persona around him, came on stage to thunderous applause and the first words out his mouth were, “Hello Chicago”. The first words of substance in his speech were one of the two themes for the evening, “Tonight it’s my turn to say thanks.”
The substance of Obama’s farewell, like Ike’s, contained a warning and a challenge to his fellow Americans. Obama discussed the state of democracy in America and challenged everyone to do their part to defend it by being politically involved. It wasn’t anything new or novel. If you have followed Obama’s core political philosophy it has always been centered on the pursuit of a more perfect union. He attributed his success to the people and told them, “You were the change.” He warned of the complacency of ignoring political polarization to the point of not even listening to your opponents, the threat of terrorism, the reality of climate change, the rise of far right wing ideology on a global scale all the time telling his audience to beware of the enemy within. He advised all listening to, “Be vigilant but not afraid.” He cautioned those listening that, “Our dream is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” After outlining many successes he added. “None of this happened on its own. All of this depends on our participation.”
By the time he concluded his speech there were precious few dry eyes including his own right eye and both of mine. His last words were, “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we did. Thank you and God bless America.”
With that a people’s President who twice won not only the Electoral College in landslides but also won the popular vote by comfortable margins backed off from the lectern to greet his wife, oldest daughter, mother-in-law, Dr. Jill Biden along with his dear friend and Vice President Joe Biden who joined him on the stage for a final curtain call.
In what on the surface was a non-partisan speech, the cerebral Obama gave progressives a blueprint for how to survive the incoming administration of an unqualified Trump who is not only over his head but refuses to recognize that fact.
For love of country and your fellow man it is incumbent that you get involved at whatever your talent level makes you comfortable. Ignorance and apathy are the best friends of tyrants!
Did Obama exceed Ike’s bar? My conclusion is that the times and situations were too different to fairly compare two substantive speeches.
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