Barack Obama’s presidency will soon come to an end, and he will deliver a farewell address to the nation tonight at 9 pm Eastern in Chicago. The speech will air on most major broadcast networks, and a live stream is embedded above.
The address comes at a tense and uncertain moment in American politics. Donald Trump, whom Obama has called “unfit to serve,” is preparing to take the office. Trump has pledged to deport many more unauthorized immigrants, sharply limit Muslim immigration, repeal Obamacare, roll back climate change regulations, and build up the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Overall, Trump plans to try to erase much of the legacy that Obama thought he would leave the country.
Oratory has always held a special importance to Obama’s story, since he first rose to national prominence because of a speech — his famous 2004 Democratic convention keynote address. His final major speech, therefore, is sure to be closely watched — particularly because the most famous presidential farewell addresses in history have given warnings to the American people.
The history of the farewell address
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 into 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 George 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.
The second most famous farewell address was delivered by Dwight Eisenhower in 1961, and it had a similarly cautionary tone. The former general warned of 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.
What to expect from President Obama’s farewell address
The big question, then, is whether President Obama will seek to focus on what he’s achieved and take a big-picture, optimistic view of where the country is headed — or whether he will give some darker warnings to the American people.
It is highly unlikely that Obama will explicitly criticize Donald Trump. Throughout the transition, Obama has attempted to maintain good relations with the incoming president, and to make clear that he respects the electoral process. Plus, he’s temperamentally an optimist, and frequently argues that the “arc of history” may be long but it “bends toward justice.” So don’t expect him to go out with a bombastic and condemnatory piece of oratory — even if he does still think, as he said in August, that Trump lacks the “basic knowledge,” “basic decency,” “judgment,” and “temperament” necessary for the presidency.
Still, Barack Obama is a president who thinks quite a lot about his place in history and how he will be remembered. And for particularly important addresses, Obama has often taken a very hands-on role in speechwriting. “There are certain speeches that I have to write myself,” Obama told journalist Michael Lewis in 2012. “There are times when I’ve got to capture what the essence of the thing is.” So it seems unlikely that he will pass up this unique moment to make a very personal statement on this moment in American politics.
For an example of how he might handle the speech, check out the remarks the president gave shortly after Trump won, or watch Michelle Obama’s final speech as first lady. Both pointedly argued for the importance of inclusion and diversity, in a way that seemed pointedly aimed at Trump. And both argued that young people must remain engaged in politics going forward rather than getting disillusioned. Still, the moment may call for something more.
How to watch:
When: 9 pm Eastern
Where: McCormick Place, Chicago, Illinois
TV: CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, PBS
Online: At the top of this page!