The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s farewell address was classy and calm. And that’s the problem.

You can't fight Trump with lofty liberal discourse. It needs to get loud and get angry.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 10, 2017. Picture taken January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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On Tuesday night, Obama delivered a farewell address in the cool and collected manner we’ve come to expect from him. He focused his speech on “the state of our democracy,” noting that “stark inequality is … corrosive to our democratic idea.” Obama also addressed health care, education and immigration, all with a level and measured tone and that trademark elegant diction. Yet while the ideas Obama espoused were valid and he expressed them well, smarts and levelheadedness no longer seem sufficient to respond to the moment at hand. Ultimately, Obama’s speech utilized a type of high-minded, rational discourse that is an ineffective tool in the fight against Trump’s wildly inconsistent ideology.

Obama called for workers “to unionize for better wages” and tax code reforms. He calmly urged white Americans to acknowledge the existence of institutionalized racism, pointing out that “the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s.” He made sense, but making sense in 2017 doesn’t get you very far. Trump gets away with being nonsensical because he appeals to raw emotion and rage, not intellect. Obama’s serene eloquence won’t appeal to Trump’s angry masses, and it’s difficult to imagine it galvanizing his own side.

Likewise, Obama talked about the “threats to our democracy,” but he missed an important one: the ineffectual political strategy of his own party. He asked the crowd: “How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations? How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing?”

He shouldn’t be framing these as questions; it makes these “ethical lapses” sound almost hypothetical, abstract. In reality, these issues aren’t rhetorical questions — they’re the substance of real human lives.

The farewell address was also scant on spirited rallying cries for the future. “So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system,” Obama said, without mentioning that Congress is in the process of confirming Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, who according to the NAACP, has demonstrated “explicit and extreme denigration of civil rights organizations.” Why not get into the nitty-gritty of what’s actually going on, or dream bigger than simply upholding the status quo?

Obama isn’t wrong when he says “our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” but it might benefit him to note that because of voter suppression and the electoral college, we don’t live in a healthy democratic society to begin with. Because it doesn’t really fall “to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy” in, say, North Carolina, which is currently facing allegations of illegally disenfranchising black voters at the Supreme Court. It falls to the leaders who will directly follow Obama, who he could have called upon in that moment to act responsibly and virtuously, or face the consequences. Instead, he wished them well.

The speech, by all counts, was safe and thoughtful, but the political predicament our nation finds itself in distinctly unsafe and hysterical. You can’t combat the looming threat of the Trump administration — which includes a man beloved by white nationalists and a vice president who believes in gay conversion therapy — with calm bipartisan dialogue. You can’t fight an impending fire with a thoughtfully written manual on how to extinguish flames.

I can empathize with Obama’s instinct to calmly appeal to Americans. It isn’t in the president’s nature to be vulgar or brash, and it’s a nice respite from the incoherent chaos of a Trump speech. Yet it also reeks of a certain academic, bloodless, hoity-toity liberalism that’s uninspiring to many. Calling on Americans to believe in our ability “to bring about change” is pretty empty considering income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928 and we have an inadequate public education system. Those are the problems that call for leadership, not light, paternal reprimand.

Trump’s rise to power has highlighted much of the Democratic Party’s failure to strategize. It’s up the Democrats to educate the American public about the serious threat the GOP poses to our country. Obama was right when he called our current political dialogue “corrosive.” Attempts at bipartisanship didn’t work during Obama’s term, and they will be even less effective under Trump. To effectively battle the Republicans, the Democrats need to utilize the same fiery passion as their opposition. That doesn’t mean propagating lies or petty insults, but rather talking to Americans straightforwardly about how Trump will hurt them, how he’ll waste their resources and break his promises, how he’ll let banks and businesses swell in size and trample those smaller, how he’ll shatter health care for millions and give juicy tax cuts to his rich friends. Calling for change is surely important, but bogged down in high-minded discourse and vagueness, Obama’s speech illustrated the shortcomings of his party. If the Democrats don’t acknowledge that lofty liberal discourse is largely impotent in our current political climate, they will continue to lose.