He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
Whatever you think of the presidency of Barack Obama, and I know there are many who think of him as one of our greatest presidents and others with a distinctly differing opinion, I think we can all safely say he was unlike any man who has ever occupied the office of President of the United States. And I cannot imagine anyone quite like him in the future.
Tonight we saw a man of dignity, chastened by the reality of Washington and speaking in the shadows of a presidential election that leaves his legacy deeply threatened and seems to still be spiraling into uncharted territory. This was not the young Senator who bounded upon the world stage with unbridled optimism in a belief we could easily overcome all that divides us. This was a man humbled by experience, but still summoning a deep faith in the basic strength of our democratic traditions. He spoke of the accomplishments of which he was most proud, but he then shifted into a remarkable stretch where he highlighted all the challenges ahead. He almost sounded like a candidate for office, undoubtedly frustrated by the forces he felt were arrayed against him.
He spoke deeply about race, the undercurrent that coursed beneath his presidency as it has through all of American history. He spoke sympathetically of white Americans who feel worried and marginalized, but he then turned forcibly to a sense of all the racial progress left to be done and an inclusive outreach to immigrants. It was one America, perhaps without some of the naivete of his famed speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. It seems to me that this will be his message going forward, combatting what he called the “great sorting” of self-isolation according to cultural, region, religious, and ethnic lines.
One of his biggest applause line was that “science and reason matter.” He spoke passionately about his worry for a nation that increasingly assigns the notions of “facts” to partisan battle. And his section on climate change, the shamefully ignored issue of the last election, was particularly strong. It was a section that resonated with me personally, a belief that science and reason must be the path forward for our nation to thrive and prosper. It echoed a quote I just saw from Thomas Jefferson: “In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.”
It is tempting to see a Farewell Address as, well, a farewell. But I got the sense watching President Obama tonight that this will not be the last we will see of him commanding a public stage. His youth, the state of the nation and the world, his unique background and qualifications will likely make him a presence in our national discourse for a long time to come.
When President George Washington issued his Farewell Address, setting the precedent echoed tonight, he almost literally rode off into the sunset. And for most of American history former presidents largely retired from an actively political public life. There have been many notable exceptions – John Quincy Adams and Teddy Roosevelt – just to name a few. But new technologies for communication and the seemingly sudden shift in the direction of our charted course as a nation will make the destiny of this former president likely different from all that have preceded him.
It is striking to see this man, who rode into the White House under the banner of Hope, age under the burdens of the office in the years since. As we mark this moment, where we confront a seeming crisis of conscience in our democratic experiment, it’s important to remember the dire storm clouds of global financial doom that greeted President Obama eight years ago.
How will history judge this man and his tenure is a question none of us can fully answer. It depends not only what has happened but on what has yet to occur. And I suspect President Obama will have a hand, a string hand, in shaping this destiny.