Barack Obama’s ultimately optimistic farewell speech may be remembered as the most depressing moment of his presidency.
He ended the night by bringing the Chicago crowd to its feet with his long-ago trademark line, “Yes, we can.”
And then: “Yes, we did,” as if it to say the promise had been kept.
But what we did, of course, was to repeal and replace Obama with Donald Trump, the anti-Obama, and nothing Obama could say — no warning about the hard work of keeping a democracy, no plea for a way through our present bout of class and racial division, no case against the ravages of income inequality — could change that one inarguable fact.
As Obama left the stage — and, if the polling is right, as somewhat more than half a nation wept — the news of the day was that U.S. intelligence agencies had informed both Trump and Obama that Russia may have “compromising personal and financial” info on Trump and that Trump’s people may have had contact with Russian intermediaries prior to the election.
That changes everything. Or it changes nothing. The information is unsubstantiated, and the intelligence agencies are investigating the matter. But here we are.
And here we’re almost certain to remain.
It’s headline material everywhere, of course. And as if to ensure that, BuzzFeed irresponsibly published the uncorroborated dossier, put together by a British operative for opposition-research groups. The information has apparently been out there for a while, but James Comey didn’t announce it and the media didn’t publish it, and, now that we’ve seen it, do we really think that Russians have Trump sex tapes with which to blackmail him?
There are other possibilities. The Russians could have copies of Trump’s tax returns, which presumably contain any number of Trump embarrassments. Or the “scandal” could amount to nothing more than a Comey pre-election warning to Congress that there were Hillary Clinton emails to investigate. It’s all so strange, but so is Trump’s insistent embrace of all things Putin.
What we do know is that Trump, in advance of his long-awaited news conference, took to Twitter to call the whole thing a “political witch hunt,” which I think he’s used before. Meanwhile, Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway said that Trump was “not aware” of being informed, which, as I may have tweeted, could mean that Trump isn’t actually being briefed even when he is being briefed.
It wasn’t the only news to compete with an Obama farewell that he once must have thought would be a celebration. The Washington Post released a letter that Coretta Scott King had written back in 1986 calling for the rejection of Jeff Sessions’ nomination as federal judge, saying he would “irreparably damage” her husband’s work. A Republican Senate did reject him then. Now, Sessions is sailing through his committee hearing, and this Republican Senate will no doubt approve his nomination as attorney general.
Meanwhile, Dylann Roof was sentenced to death for the massacre at the Emanuel AME church, a terrible reminder of both the limits of justice and the limits of progress and of the many speeches Obama has made following too many gun deaths.
But Obama wrote this speech with history in mind. He used his farewell as a warning, as Washington famously did with his, as Eisenhower famously did with his. Obama’s warning was of autocrats and demagogues threatening American democracy. He mentioned Trump only in passing, and not critically, but you didn’t have to read very far between the lines to know that Obama was talking about Trumpism and how to survive it.
The most quoted part of the speech will probably be this, and the threat is clear enough: “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power — with our participation and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
My guess is that history will treat the speech well, just as it is likely to treat the Obama presidency well. Far too much is made of the risk the Trump presidency presents to Obama’s legacy. It’s the risk to millions of vulnerable Americans that matters.
If Trump and the Republican Congress repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that fails to keep us moving toward universal healthcare coverage, that won’t be Obama’s failure. If climate change is ignored and women’s and gay rights are set back, if immigration reform is rejected and millions are forced to live in the shadows, that will fall to Trump and the Republican Party.
And yet. And yet.
As Obama walked away Tuesday night, the loudspeakers were blaring Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” but, whatever the lyrics say, hope seemed to be on indefinite hold, and our dreams, if we’re very lucky, would prove to be just a passing fever.
Photo of then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007 by Joe Crimmings via Flickr Creative Commons