President Obama delivered his farewell address last night exactly ten days before Donald Trump will give his own speech accepting the presidential handoff. While no one knows exactly what Trump is going to say, the contrast between the two public appearances is likely to be stark. Trump undoubtedly will begin to moderate the surly persona he cultivated on the campaign trail, but Trump has little choice but to continue mainly being Trump. This means that what we'll probably hear from him in just over a week will be fairly angry and unpleasant. It will be interesting to see whether he can muster the discipline to stick to the polished rhetoric of a script that writers would have been at work crafting for him at the very moment the outgoing president was at his podium in Chicago. I'm guessing Trump will try but will prove unable with any consistency to resist his ungracious impulses.Obama was Obama too. But speaking as someone who voted against him twice and would do so a third time were he able to run again, I say this in admiration. He and his party have been deeply humiliated in the recent election, and the course of least resistance for him would have been retreating into partisan vitriol. Indeed, I'm sure the bitter left wing of his party was urging him to do exactly that in order to jump-start their own ascendency at this critical juncture.
Yet he stayed true to what seems to be his nature, which allows him to rise above all this and speak in a tone worthy of the high office he's held these past eight years. He did return to his home town for the speech, and he pushed a few partisan hot-buttons - brief references to LGBT and climate change won him the loudest applause of the night - but most of what he said was deeply patriotic, in the most positive sense of the word, and meshed well with the best of American political rhetoric that's been composed since George Washington's day. He didn't appeal to unity as such but to tolerance and a willingness to embrace sharp differences in the pursuit of solutions to the nation's problems. He warned against arrogance and the temptation to caricature opponents. There was a great deal of warmth in the speech and not much of fear or resentment.
It's ironic in a way that this speech occurred in Chicago at the time that it did. Like other American cities, Chicago has seen a recent upsurge in racially-charged violence that is being egged on by radical factions. Just days before the President's address, four black teenagers in Chicago kidnapped and tortured a mentally-disabled white guy while laughingly shouting anti-white and anti-Trump taunts at him. The perpetrators felt emboldened enough to live-stream the whole thing on Facebook, short-circuiting any claim that the incident was being made up or blown out of proportion. Like so may other incendiary scenes nowadays, the clips are there on the Internet for all to see.The political Right will attempt and is attempting to blame this sort of thing on Obama and his Party, in much the way elements on the Left have always tried to tag Republicans with responsibility for encouraging the depredations of Klansmen and neo-Nazi skinheads.
It says a great deal about the President that he made use of his last formal appearance before the nation to lead all of us away from this mode of thinking. Without betraying his own partisan principles as a Democrat, he's telling us it's OK and even a good thing to oppose one another in the pursuit of our beliefs, but to stop demonizing. It's my own prediction that things are about to get much worse for all of us, and heeding this advice will serve us well.At the very end of the hour-long presentation, the President warmly embraced Joe Biden, one of the many political rivals he bested over the years, calling him a friend and brother. This was all good teary-eyed political theater, but I read it as entirely sincere.
He then spent several minutes praising his wife Michelle. At one level, this too was theater and traditional American family-values stuff, but on a more politically significant level, its seemed reasonably clear to me that he was doing his last bit to position her as heir to his mantel. She herself has repeatedly forsworn any personal political ambitions, but ritualistically turning away the crown is another American tradition that dates back to George Washington. After her stint as Secretary of State, even the hyper-political Hillary Clinton claimed to lack any interest in the Presidency.Neither Washington nor Mrs. Clinton were sincere in their disclaimers, and I doubt that we've heard the last from Michelle Obama either. She certainly did deliver the best speech to be heard at either of the nominating conventions this past summer.
Unless Mrs. Obama decides to abandon the broken Democrats and head some sort of pragmatic and centrist third party, I'll never be voting for her. However, listening to her husband speak yesterday, and considering everything going on around us, it did occur to me that we could do worse.