My blog posts this week are all about presidential oratory. First, in this episode, I’ll be analyzing President Obama’s farewell address. In the next one, I’ll analyze the new President’s inaugural address. Please note that one will go out Friday afternoon, since it seems best only to write about the address after I’ve actually heard and seen it.
President Obama’s speaking typifies what we know of the man: it’s emotionally restrained, and rhetorically ambitious, even elegant, quoting Washington’s farewell address and talking about the big issues of democracy. His speaking style echoes the church oratory of the day, and his greatest strength is his ability to wait for, and listen to, his audience. As a result, his audience experiences what might be described as a presidential conversation rather than a harangue. His farewell address is typical of this mature style.
Throughout, consistent with his style of listening to and waiting for the audience, Obama stresses inclusiveness in his farewell address. He begins by thanking the audience, “Whether we have seen eye to eye or not.” This president is attempting to talk to more than just his base.
By pausing and listening so consistently throughout his speech, President Obama manages to establish a consistency of style and content – he’s all about inclusiveness, and his own style of waiting for the audience underlines that.
President Obama next moves on to the subject of race, saying that, in spite of great progress, “we have to do better.” His restraint on the subject of race has been extraordinary, and my guess is that it will seem more so as we get a little perspective on his presidency. He could have chosen to make his election and two terms in office all about race; because he didn’t America actually made more progress than his most vociferous critics would have you believe.
Obama then turns to immigrants, and talks about them as part of the strength of the country. It’s a feature of the U.S. that much of the electorate seems to have soured on lately, but Obama was not backing down. That topic naturally leads him to the idea of the information bubble that each of us lives in, and how that bubble endangers reasoned debate.
He then reminds us that our “democracy is threatened when we take it for granted,” stressing that democracy depends on our participation as citizens. He quotes President Washington’s farewell address, asking us to become those “anxious, jealous guardians of democracy” that all citizens must be.
In a particularly elegant phrase, he notes that the only office he’ll be taking on in future is “the most important office in a democracy: citizen.” The closest he gets to a more relaxed discourse is his admonition to people who aren’t happy with the decisions of their democratically elected leaders. He encourages them to organize, saying, “show up, dive in, stay at it.”
Obama wraps up his address with thoroughgoing, if restrained, tributes to his wife, daughters, and the Bidens. He ends with a tribute to the millennials who will take up the democratic cudgels next, saying that the next generation is “unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic,” and concluding that the future is in good hands. He says, “yes we can, yes we did, yes we can,” and with that, the nation’s first black president joins the ranks of the former presidents, a graceful final speech from a restrained, elegant man who showed consistent composure under enormous pressure.
Again, my post on the new president’s inaugural address will go out Friday, after the event, rather than Thursday as per usual.