Plenty of President Obama’s predecessors have delivered farewell addresses, but on Thursday he sought to cement his administration’s record in an avalanche of paper: more than two dozen “Cabinet Exit Memos.”
Every major department, as well as a raft of other agencies and bodies ranging from the Council of Economic Advisers to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, released a lengthy accounting of the individual accomplishments. They range from the State Department’s work on Iran’s nuclear program and work on restoring ties with Cuba to the Environmental Protection Agency’s policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In his cover letter to the memos, Obama writes, “It has been the privilege of my life to serve as your president. And as I prepare to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen, I’m proud to say that we have laid a new foundation for America.”
He added, “Still, through every victory and every setback, I’ve insisted that change is never easy, and never quick; that we wouldn’t meet all of our challenges in one term, or one presidency, or even in one lifetime.”
Some administration officials privately acknowledged there was a risk in detailing all their signature policies, because this act potentially provides a road map for what the incoming Trump administration could reverse once it takes office. But the White House has made a concerted effort over the past year to outline what it has achieved over the president’s two terms, and these memos fit neatly within that category.
On Friday, for example, Obama will do a sit-down interview with the website Vox to discuss what has been accomplished through the passage and implementation of his signature health-care law, the Affordable Care Act.
The tone of the memos vary significantly. While all of them highlight the positive aspects of the administration’s record and downplay the negative ones, some are more emotional than others. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, for example, sends his best wishes to his successor in “representing the greatest country on earth” and expresses hope that he and others serving Obama in the second term did enough to combat climate change.
“If we can build on this course in the decades to come, there is at least a chance that our children and our grandchildren will look back at the last years of this administration as the moment the world finally woke up to the threat,” he said.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, by contrast, provided a somewhat drier accounting of her work, but made a similar point in concluding, “As we pass the baton, we are proud to have run our leg of the race with steadfast vigor, and left a healthier country and a stronger EPA.”
And Interior Secretary Sally Jewell summed up her guiding policy “compass” with a proverb, in italics: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
Even as pundits and histories assess Obama’s record, the president made it clear he hopes that average Americans would share his deputies’ account of what they did while in office, saying, “I hope you’ll share them with others, and do your part to build on the progress we’ve made across the board.”
Of course, Obama isn’t passing up the chance to deliver a farewell address as well: He will do that on Tuesday in Chicago’s McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America.