President Barack Obama gave his farewell address on Tuesday night, so at least we’ve got that going for us.
President-elect Donald Trump once again grabbed all the attention, of course, with his indignantly “tweeted” denial of some juicy new allegations that were reportedly included in the intelligence community’s much-debated reports to Congress and other officials concerning Russia’s alleged meddling in the past election. A maybe true and maybe not true dossier of allegations was compiled by a reportedly respected ex-British intelligence official, and is now splashed all over the internet, and it mentions Russian prostitutes and some very kinky sex acts, as well as several presumably more hygienic but no less newsworthy contacts that Trump’s business and campaign officials had with Russian officials, and it’s undeniably more irresistible conversation fodder than another one of Obama’s orations.
All that cloak and dagger and kinky sex stuff will play out over the next several days or weeks or months, though, if not much longer than that, and in the meantime we feel obliged to take note of Obama’s speech.
For the past nine years or so we’ve been hearing about what a wonderfully eloquent orator Obama is, but we were once again unimpressed. The language is well-crafted enough by comparison to his successor’s schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but that’s damning by faint praise, and up against an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King or any other first rate rhetorician it’s not at all memorable. Even his most awe-struck admirers are hard-pressed to remember any line he ever uttered quite so iconic as Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address coinage of “military-industrial complex” or John Kennedy’s “bear any burden” shtick or even George W. Bush’s pithy “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and what they do come up with about “no red states or blues states” and “hope and change” and “yes we can” and that one about the sea levels falling now sounds faintly ridiculous after eight long years of his tiresome speeches.
Which left poor Obama, just 10 short days away from the seemingly inevitable inauguration of Trump, with the difficult job of making the case that all that hope had not been misplaced. He had a friendly audience in his adopted hometown of Chicago, all revved up by a soulful rendition of the the National Anthem, and he bounded on the stage with a rock star’s roar and a rock star’s rote greeting to a certain local neighborhood and a whole of thank you thank you very much, followed by some lame self-deprecating humor about being a lame duck, then he started waxing eloquent. He did so well enough that his still-ardent admirers who still feel that hope were probably tugging at their eyes, but any eyes that have been keeping a more unblinking watch on the past eight years were rolling.
There was some nostalgic talk about his young and idealistic days as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, and how he learned that “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” That same south side of Chicago is presently so disorganized that it has a murder rate that would shock the denizens of your average third world hellhole, but so far the survivors haven’t gotten involved and engaged and demand change from Obama’s associates at City Hall, and somehow we got the sense that he wasn’t urging them to start now.
He followed that up with some rousing stuff about the wisdom of the founding fathers and their belief that we are “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” At any rate it would have been rousing if he hadn’t spent the past eight years giving speeches about the country’s racist and sexist and classist origins, and steadfastly defending abortion rights, and restricting the citizens’ liberty in numerous ways, and generally making life miserable for anyone who was just trying to live it. There was some more rousing-for-the-faithful stuff about onward and upward to the more perfect union, along with a list of liberal goals that have been achieved over the years.
Even Obama had to admit that “Yes, our progress has been uneven,” and sometimes even “contentious,” and there was no talk about ocean levels falling or a new era of hope and change or any of the other stuff so many people were swooning for starting back about nine years ago. Instead, Obama tried to argue that things had worked out even better than promised. He touted the end of a Great Recession and “reboot” of America’s automotive industry and eight straight years of job growth, the shutdown of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and new relations with Cuba and of course the oft-cited death of Osama Bin Laden, along with a health care plan that insured another 20 million Americans, and boasted that “If I had told you that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
Even if that were all true it’s still setting the sights a little bit lower than during the messianic ’08 campaign, as far as we’re concerned, but without looking anything up and despite the florid language we were ready to dispute almost all of it. The Great Recession of ’08 did indeed come to an end, but recessions have always come to an end and usually with more robust employment gains than during the past below post-World War II averages, and who’s to say that whoever bought out General Motors would haven’t hired more workers? Iran’s nuclear weapons program is still on schedule and has a few billion dollar extra in its coffers thanks to Obama’s largesse, our new relations with Cuba are far too chummy with a communist regime for our tastes, and Obama saying he succeeded in killing Bin Laden where Bush had failed is like Nixon claiming credit for getting to the moon where Johnson and Kennedy had failed. That 20 million insured figure is by almost all other accounts vastly overstated, and includes a lot of people stuck on Medicaid and forced by buy overpriced insurance they don’t need, and it’s clearly one reason job growth has been so sluggish, and so many more people are stuck paying exorbitant rate increases and swelling budget deficits to pay for it that the guy who promised to repeal Obama’s signature piece of legislation wound up winning.
At that point Obama had to chide the crowd for booing the guy who did wind up winning, and we’ll give him credit for doing that, and he pledged a peaceful transfer of power and gave some props to George W. Bush for doing him the same solid. That was followed by a lot of talk exhorting Democrats to continuing be Democrats, and racism and climate change being very bad, and peace being better than war, along with some bragging about the oil boom he did everything he could to thwart, and a whole lot of blather that will be little noted and soon forgotten, to borrow a phrase from a more memorable orator. It didn’t convince us that we’d been wrong all along, and that Obama really was the Messiah we’d been told, but we suppose the true believers liked it, even if they can’t remember a single line of it today.
At this point we’re quite agnostic on the question of whether Trump really did pay those Russian prostitutes to perform those kinky sex acts while on a Moscow business trip, or whether any of those other dealings actually occurred, but we’re quite convinced he’s also no Messiah. All we can say at this point is that we can’t say we’re looking forward to four or eight more years of schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but at least the rest of Obama’s ponderous speeches will be more easily ignored as the forgettable asides of an ex-president.
— Bud Norman