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Obama used his farewell address to issue 5 warnings about US democracy

His speech harked back to Washington and Eisenhower.

Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Obama participated in a venerable tradition Tuesday night by using his farewell address to give warnings about his fears for America’s future.

While the speech was broadly optimistic in tone and avoided any significant discussion of the man who will soon occupy the White House, the bulk of the text was devoted to expressing his fears about how things could go wrong for the United States.

Saying early on that his speech’s theme would be “the state of our democracy,” Obama went on: “There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times.”

The president named five specific threats he said he felt American democracy was currently facing: economic inequality, racial tensions, polarization, foreign threats, and decaying democratic institutions.

“How we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland,” Obama said.

Presidential farewell warnings have a long history

The tradition of the presidential farewell address technically dates back to George Washington, who published the first and most famous such address (in text form) in September 1796. The tradition fell out of fashion for some time, but with the dawn of mass communication technology in the mid-20th century it came back in vogue, and since then, every president who’s served two full terms in office has delivered one.

Most farewell addresses are forgettable. They’re a time for presidents to brag about their accomplishments, say how much they’ve loved serving the country, and give a final goodbye on their way out. Few remember, for instance, George W. Bush’s farewell reflections on the war on terror or Bill Clinton’s argument for fiscal responsibility.

But others have stood the test of time, and this is primarily because they’ve given warnings that are deemed by later generations as prophetic.

Indeed, the first and most famous presidential farewell address, delivered by Washington, was framed as a series of explicit warnings to the young nation from “a parting friend.” Washington cautioned America about the dangers of sectionalism, of overzealous partisanship, and of permanent foreign alliances. Though much of the address could be read as a criticism of the Jeffersonian Republicans, it was stated in terms of broad principles rather than specific grievances, and has therefore survived.

And the second most famous farewell address — the one delivered by Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 — had a similarly cautionary tone. The former general warned that the new “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” — which he dubbed “the military industrial complex” — could pose grave dangers to American liberties and US democracy.

President Obama’s five warnings to America

While Obama did his fair share of bragging Tuesday night, he also participated in this long presidential tradition of offering farewell warnings. Indeed, he named five specific threats he said American democracy is facing — albeit while retaining his characteristic optimism about the big picture:

  1. The economy and inequality. “Our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity,” the president said, calling inequality “corrosive to our democratic principles.” Without a “new social compact” improving education, the social safety net, and the tax code, he said, “the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”
  2. Racial tensions. While arguing that race relations have indeed been improving, Obama expressed some concern for how they could develop in the coming years. “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves,” he said. He argued that white Americans, black Americans, and other minorities should all try to change their “hearts” and have greater empathy for their neighbors. “We have to try harder; to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do.”
  3. Polarization and closed-mindedness. Obama then argued that he feared Americans were growing too eager to retreat into their respective “bubbles” and talk only to those they agreed with. “Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there,” he said. “Without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”
  4. Foreign threats — and whether the US can keep its values in responding to them. Moving on to foreign affairs, Obama said that both terrorists and autocrats were challenging the US-led international order, saying they represented “the fear of change,” “the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law,” or “a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.” But he added that he was even more concerned that America could abandon its values in response to those threats. “ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight,” he said.
  5. Decaying democratic institutions. Obama’s “final point,” he said, was that “our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” He argued, then, that all Americans must take on “the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions” — which he defined as working to improve voting accessibility, limiting money in politics, ensuring that ethics standards for public officials are upheld, and undoing gerrymandering of districts.

He continued:

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.

The elephant in the room: Donald Trump

Yet the speech was also notable for the one very important topic Obama didn’t discuss: President-elect Donald Trump.

At a moment when many Democrats and liberals are intensely concerned about what the next administration could bring, Obama mostly avoided the topic, except perhaps in the broadest strokes.

Indeed, aside from a brief mention near the beginning, in which Obama again reiterated his commitment to ensuring “the smoothest possible transition” for Trump, the president-elect and the specifics of the controversial campaign he waged went unmentioned.

Obama clearly feels a farewell address is not the place for a president to launch a bombastic criticism of his successor. Still, despite his five warnings, the speech was so optimistic, so proud, and so fundamentally “Obama” that it felt like business as usual at a profoundly unusual and uncertain time in American politics.

But Obama thinks quite a lot about his place in history, and how his various actions will be viewed in the very long term. He seems to have been writing not for the concerns of the present moment, but for the concerns he felt American democracy will still face 10 and 20 years from now.