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Obama's farewell address refused to treat the Trump era as a crisis

President Obama Delivers Farewell Address In Chicago Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Nothing that President Obama actually said in his farewell address to the nation from Chicago on Tuesday night was that shocking. But the context in which he delivered it made the speech feel downright bizarre, like it was delivered on a different planet.

To many people within the majority of Americans who did not support Donald Trump in November, the present situation is something like a crisis. The welfare state is on the verge of historic cuts. Inequality is about to explode as taxes for the rich plummet. Muslims have been promised explicit discrimination against them by their government. Immigrants have been promised a historic crackdown. And the leaks about Trump’s ties to the Kremlin, each more salacious than the last, seem to never cease.

You might expect a speech in such a context to express alarm, to rally the troops to resist these policies or at the very least to rebut this concern and present an argument for why the future is as not as dark as it appears.

Obama did none of those things. Into this torrent of concern and anguish from his most ardent supporters, he offered what he always offers: hope. That hope is all the more audacious for his disinclination to make even the slightest argument for why it’s justified. Trump was mentioned once, as Obama promised to “ensure the smoothest possible transition.” The only mention he made of Russia was an offhanded, “Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world.”

On Obamacare, he was practically triumphant: “If I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”

This is a comment from a speech delivered in a different world, one in which the Senate majority and House speaker weren’t intent on rescinding the right to health insurance for those 20 million fellow citizens and already enacting a legislative strategy intended to do just that.

Insofar as the speech could be considered a response to Trumpism, that’s because, well, Obama disagrees with Trump on much. Obama structured the speech around five threats to democracy: 1) economic inequality, 2) racial discrimination, 3) partisanship and polarization, 4) foreign threats, and 5) declining trust in institutions and declining political participation.

The first is an implicit critique of Trump’s plans to massively slash taxes on the rich. The second allowed Obama an opportunity to defend immigrants against nativist rhetoric and to insist upon the continued necessity of fights for racial justice, implicitly rebuking Trump again. In condemning polarization, he lamented the partisan split on climate change, a split exemplified by Trump’s insistence that it’s a Chinese hoax and commitment to rolling back Obama’s regulations curbing emissions. And the very frame of “threats to democracy” alludes to a larger abstract concern about Trump.

But you could easily see Obama delivering a very similar speech, perhaps without the “threats to democracy” frame, after the election of, say, Marco Rubio, or even Hillary Clinton. In the latter case, it’d feel like an implicit endorsement of the incoming president, but the point would still stand. Obama was only rebuking Trump insofar as simply reiterating his own longstanding policy positions rebukes politicians who disagree with him.

It’s easy to understand why Obama decided to deliver a speech like this. He believes strongly in implicit norms surrounding the president, in the peaceful transfer of power and the necessity of not excessively undermining the new commander in chief. He was never going to go out, call Trump by name, and demand that he protects the health care of millions and save the planet from greenhouse gases. He was never going to condemn his successor as a racist demagogue. He was never going to issue dire warnings about what will happen to the country, and to his own legacy, if Trump gets his way.

But you can understand his reasons and still marvel at the incongruity of his remarks in the present moment. For a viewer with questions like, “Is the incoming president being blackmailed by Russia?” “Are 20 million people about to lose their health insurance all of a sudden?” “Is this a safe country to be a nonwhite person?” Obama gave no reasons for optimism. He barely mentioned the realities that drive those worries at all.

If this is what you believe the situation to be, you want reassurance. You want Obama, who is vastly more popular than his successor-to-be, to give some explanation as to why things are not about to get horrifically worse, or to explicitly condemn and push back against the people trying to make that future a reality. For him to do neither resulted in a speech that seemed to exist outside of time, untethered to a world more chaotic and foreboding than the one Obama described.