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November 25th, 2017

Insight

For Obama, A Farewell Address... Or One Last Abuse Of The First-Person Singular?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Jan. 10, 2017

Historically, former presidents have made it a point to get the heck out of Dodge once there's a new sheriff in town.

The two Bushes, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each boarded a plane (some quicker than others) following the midday inaugural ceremony, as did Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson. Harry Truman hightailed it over to Union Station and hopped a train back to Missouri.

But Barack Obama won't be leaving town. For the first time since Woodrow Wilson, a former president will be setting up shop in the nation's capital (the Obamas' daughter Sasha, age 15, is enrolled at Sidwell Friends so they've rented a house -- ironically, a short stroll from Wilson's place of refuge back in March 1921).

Does the 44th president, soon to be a private citizen, catch a ride with Uber following the ceremony? Not that Wilson faced this dilemma. He rode to Capitol Hill with Warren Harding, dropped off his successor and didn't bother hanging around for the ceremonies (Wilson's frail health, for much of his second term, limited his public appearances).

It's not the only oddity pertaining to Obama's last days in office.

On Tuesday, there's the matter of a "farewell address" in Chicago - open to the public and, not coincidentally, at the same locale where Obama celebrated his re-election with a massive rally (here's the video from 2012).

Again, the historical precedent: a dozen of Obama's predecessors have given one last address to the nation (this includes Richard's Nixon's resignation speech in August 1974).

Of the twelve:

  • Two were paper submissions (George Washington 1796 and Andrew Jackson in 1837);
  • One was delivered in front of the House of Representatives (Gerald Ford in 1977);
  • Eight came from within the confines of the White House (seven delivered from behind the desk in the Oval Office; one in the East Room)
  • And only one from beyond the nation's capital: George H.W. Bush speaking at West Point in January 1993.

About that speech: it was one-dimensional in that the outgoing president stuck to but one subject: in the aftermath of the Cold War, America's responsibilities as the world's lone superpower.

Among Bush's thoughts that day:

"Leadership should not be confused with either unilateralism or universalism. We need not respond by ourselves to each and every outrage of violence. The fact that America can act does not mean that it must. A nation's sense of idealism need not be at odds with its interests, nor does principle displace prudence.

No, the United States should not seek to be the world's policeman. There is no support abroad or at home for us to play this role, nor should there be. We would exhaust ourselves in the process, wasting precious resources needed to address those problems at home and abroad that we cannot afford to ignore.

But in the wake of the cold war, in a world where we are the only remaining superpower, it is the role of the United States to marshal its moral and material resources to promote a democratic peace. It is our responsibility, it is our opportunity to lead. There is no one else."

Two things stood out regarding what the Navy man told his Army audience that day.

First, it eerily presages his son's experiences a decade later in and Iraq and Afghanistan - and the current president's dilemma regarding Syria. Where America chooses to stand and fight - and interject itself in other people's fights - likewise will vex Donald Trump.

Second, befitting a humble man, the speech goes light on the singular form of first-person pronouns.

Bush references himself when alluding to his own military service and thanking the Army cadets for theirs. Otherwise the body of the speech is devoted to America's place in the world, not Bush's in the pantheon of presidents.

And that's the big question when Obama goes for one last star turn in Chicago on Tuesday.

Obama could take the high road by taking us back to the republic's earliest days and George Washington setting the precedent of a peaceful transfer of power in his 32-page handwritten set of thoughts (while we're on the topic of Washington, I encourage you to buy a copy of John Avlon's wonderful new book on GW's farewell address in September 1796).

Or Obama could do what most annoys his critics: make the moment about himself.

Obama, as the nation's first black president and elected amidst talk of healing a divided nation, could very well use this event to talk about the health of race relations in America (let's see if that includes the tragedy of black-on-black homicides in Chicago).

As the first president in American history to serve two full terms while the nation was at war, Obama could take a page from the Bush 41 playbook and focus on America's choices and responsibilities aboard - perhaps an odd fit for, presumably, a non-military crowd.

He could hard-sell his listeners as America is demonstrably stronger than it was when he took office. But any conversation about the economy - the White House boasts about 75 consecutive months of growth, but job growth isn't keeping pace with working-age population growth - is a mixed bag of results.

Or, given that the event will have a campaign look and feel to it, Obama could do what America least needs this moment: plenty of the first-person singular; spinning his track record over these past eight years; insulating his presidency against the reality that America, twice in midterms elections and one last time last November, voted against his vision of expansive government and social engineering.

A funny thing about those twelve other farewell addresses. Bill Clinton's was the briefest (a scant 1,109 words) - unusual for a president known for interminable State of the Union talks.

The chattiest? That would be Jackson (8,247 words) and Washington (6,073). Then again, the two generals were transformational presidents. Clinton was not.

And neither is Obama. Which is why he'd do well to keep Tuesday's sermon --- and not about himself.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.

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