Breaking Down Obama’s Swan Song

What the outgoing president said at — and left out of — his farewell speech in Chicago

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 11 Jan 2017 at 7:36 AM

President Obama on Tuesday gave a farewell address in Chicago that was part swan song, part victory lap and part warning to America as President-Elect Donald Trump prepares to take his place in the Oval Office.

Obama was at times inspiring, as he so often was in the early days of 2008 when the country was awash in hope and change. He reached back for that old feeling on Tuesday.

“That’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started.”

“That’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started,” he said. “Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe you can make a difference, to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.”

But even though Obama leaves office with some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency — with rhetorical skills as sharp as ever — the circumstances surrounding his speech could hardly have been what he anticipated only months ago. Instead of handing off the baton to his would-be Democratic successor, he will be succeeded by a man who represents a repudiation of much of his agenda.

Obama quoted George Washington and spoke of sacrifices made by members of the military and others to make America better.

“So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional,” he said.

Ironic for a president who came to power rejecting the very notion of American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said at a news conference in 2009.

Here is a roundup of Obama’s speech and the context he left out.

What he said: “And the good news is that today, the economy is growing again; wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are rising again; poverty is falling again.”

The missing context: It is true that the economy recovered from the freefall that Obama inherited. The economy is growing and the unemployment rate has tumbled. But Obama will be the first president since before World War II to leave office without presiding over a single year of growth exceeding three percent. Incomes have grown briskly over the past year, but most of Obama’s tenure has been marked by stagnant wages; the median household income remains below 1999 levels. And the labor-force participation rate is near lows not seen since the 1970s.

What he said: “I agree that our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”

The missing context: Obama, himself, campaigned on a promise to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement and to get tough on abuses by China. He did neither, and the trade deficit ballooned. And while he paid lip services to fair trade on Tuesday, he pushed a giant, 12-nation trade pact that Congress never approved. Trade critics, while acknowledging that automation has played a role in manufacturing job loss, argue that Obama and his allies assign it an importance that is much greater than deserved.

What he said: “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago.”

The missing context: The American people believe otherwise, according to polling by Gallup. The venerable polling organization found in June that 46 percent of respondents believe race relations are either “somewhat” or “very bad.” In 2007, the year before Obama first won election, that figure was 29 percent. Worsening race relations will be one of the most enduring ironies of America’s first black president.

What he said: “Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, and led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save the planet.”

The missing context: Renewable energy remains a small portion of U.S. energy use. Most of the decline in foreign oil dependence has come from technological breakthroughs that touched off a domestic fracking boom. Obama had little, if anything, to do with that. He actually restricted domestic energy production on public lands. He also refused to approve the Keystone Pipeline that would have allowed more energy production from North America. As for the Paris climate change accord that Obama alluded to, it is non-binding.

What he said: “Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform … no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years.”

The missing context: The rhetorical sleight of hand ignores the fact that domestic terrorism has increased in frequency in the last several years. Instead of operations directed by terrorists abroad, the acts of violence have been committed by radicalized Muslims inspired by calls for jihad. Obama, himself, acknowledged terrorist attacks in Boston, Orlando, Fort Hoot and San Bernardino, California.

What he said: “When voting rates are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should make it easier, not harder, to vote.”

The missing context: The obvious reference to voter identification laws continues the fiction that such laws erect large burdens on voting. Getting an ID is not harder than registering to vote in the first place. Gallup found last year that Americans overwhelmingly support voter ID laws — that support includes minorities and spans the political spectrum.

What he said: About crime: nothing.

The missing context: The president uttered not a word about crime, even though he was speaking from a city — Chicago — that is awash in shootings. Police reported 762 murders in 2016. The death toll was even higher, according to a report Tuesday by the American Media Institute Newswire, which cited statistics form the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office showing 812 homicides. That figure includes killings not deemed murder by the police.

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