Opinion writer

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Barack Obama gave his farewell address last night to an adoring crowd in Chicago, and whether you like him or not, you can’t say the man is inconsistent. Dating back to the moment he burst into the national consciousness with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama has sounded the same themes, expressed the same hopes, and offered the same vision of America.

It’s a vision of us not just at our best, but always getting better. And though this may not have been his most eloquent or memorable speech in its particulars, it brought home just what a stunning contrast Obama’s vision is with that of the man who will succeed him.

I’m always struck by a terrible irony when I watch Obama speak, which is that he offers consistent tributes to America, yet for eight years he has been slandered in the most despicable ways by opponents who accuse him of not just hating our country, but of literally trying to destroy it. Yet through all his optimistic faith remains, an insistence not only that things are better than they were but that they’re going to be better than they are now, because we have the ability to unite. You can argue, as Jamelle Bouie does here, that this optimism is actually one of Obama’s great failures. But he isn’t letting it go:

Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.

Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

Obama repeated a phrase from the Constitution’s preamble that has been his primary rhetorical theme: “A more perfect union.” It’s the idea that America is never finished, that its genius lies in its ability to constantly improve, to make its founding ideals more real for everyone, to change and grow. Obama has expressed that in speech after speech, defining a new kind of progressive patriotism, one that says that America is great not because it was born that way, but because it is always becoming better.

This is quite decidedly not how Donald Trump sees America. Trump does not see American history as a forward progression; in his view there was a time (never specified precisely) when we were great, and then we fell. Immigrants, stupid leaders, foreign competitors, all conspired to bring America to its current sorry state, where the public exists in a state of chaos, fear, and misery. The only solution is a strong leader to put everything right; as he said in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it.”

That’s why although Trump occasionally talks about the “movement” his campaign supposedly represented, he never asks anything of his supporters beyond electing him. He doesn’t have any conception of national purpose or citizenship. Think about it: what exactly is it that you as a citizen are supposed to do in Trump’s America? The answer is nothing other than “get yours.” Contributing to a common endeavor is for suckers. This is a man who admitted not paying taxes, and said, “That makes me smart.”

Now contrast that with what Obama said last night:

What a radical idea, the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, and toil, and imagination — and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.

It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

You can call Obama’s perspective naive, or say that his faith in the direction of history’s arc blinded him to the forces arrayed against him and the kind of hatred and resentment the election of an African-American president would stir up, no matter how carefully he presented himself. But this is who he is and what he believes, to the end.

Obama also made a plea for empathy, for seeing things from other people’s perspectives. This too has been a theme of his from his first days as a politician, not just that we can overcome our differences to solve problems together, but that the key to doing so is the willingness to at least try to adopt another’s perspective. Try to imagine Donald Trump saying something like this:

For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.

We have to pay attention and listen.

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.

So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

Trump couldn’t say anything like that, not only because he doesn’t believe it, but because his campaign was built on resentment of others. It was all about building walls and striking back at “political correctness,” also known as “treating people with courtesy and respect.”

There’s one other contrast between the current president and the next one that last night reminded of. As Obama called out to the First Lady, one couldn’t help but think of this family, who have been the target of so much venom yet conducted themselves with such extraordinary dignity and class for the last eight years. Whether you like his policies or not, has never been even the barest hint of personal scandal around Barack Obama; at this point, the very idea would seem ludicrous. 

On January 20, he will walk out of the Oval Office, and in will walk a man who has discarded two wives when they reached their forties and then gotten himself younger ones, who has had to pay millions of dollars in settlements to victims of scams he has run, who was caught on tape admitting to sexually assaulting women, and who is so petty and insecure that even though he has been elected to the most powerful office in the world continues to spend his time lobbying infantile Twitter insults at people who criticize him.

We’ll see other presidents with Barack Obama’s optimism, personal ethics, and faith in America. But not in the next four years.