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Mindful of history, Obama bids goodbye with plea for tolerance and equality

President Barack Obama waves as he takes the stage to speak during his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

George Washington delivered a farewell address warning an infant nation against permanent alliances and bidding it to cultivate "just and amicable feelings towards all." Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address in the chill of the Cold War warned against the influence of the "military-industrial complex," a phrase he introduced into the U.S. political lexicon. Barack Obama's valedictory was of a different order entirely – a warning to a mature nation that "stark inequality" is a threat to "our democratic ideal," a challenge to Americans to resist "more cynicism and polarization in our politics," and a plea for tolerance toward minorities, immigrants and Muslims.

Without a new national burst of civility, the President said, "the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come." And of race relations, he said, "We're not where we need to be, and all of us have more work to do." The eighth year of a U.S. presidency is ordinarily a time of conciliation and recapitulation, with the President often more concerned with his legacy than with the politics of the day. Bill Clinton was peculiarly preoccupied with his place in history, sometimes complaining that the relatively tranquil period of his presidency deprived him of the opportunity to achieve the greatness that came to wartime leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Obama has been no less tormented by history's verdict, even to the point of summoning groups of historians to the White House.

In depth: Obama's legacy, and future, is rooted in Chicago's South Side

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On Tuesday night, he sought to have the final word, knowing of course that even for presidents – especially for presidents – there never is a final word. While Mr. Washington's farewell really was a letter to the nation, and while Mr. Eisenhower's was an Oval Office address, Mr. Obama's farewell had the feeling and setting of a campaign rally, which – delivered 10 days before Donald Trump takes office – in effect it was.

To repeated ovations, his hometown-Chicago message was simple: American politics must "reflect the decency of our people." The country needs "a common purpose" and a "basic sense of solidarity." A growing economy must spread prosperity to all. Americans must "stop talking past each other," whether on social media or in neighbourhood conversations. And climate change is a real threat to the planet that could betray future generations and betray "the essential spirit" of the United States, which began as a nation of Enlightenment thinkers and practical tinkerers.

"This was a speech very rich in history," said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire historian specializing in the U.S. presidency. "He reminded the country that what holds us together were the ideals of the founders, ideas that run through our history even when we haven't lived up to them. He went to the 18th century to find the touchstones and the core of our national values." Mr. Obama, his hair almost white in the glare of the television klieg lights, spoke of the high points of his eight years in the White House: economic recovery, national health care and marriage equality. "America," he said, "is a better, stronger place than it was when we started." And while Mr. Obama mentioned his successor by name only once, much of the address was aimed at Mr. Trump's style, remarks and positions, especially on immigration, with the President urging Americans to be vigilant about their rights and liberties.

The President came to his speech with unusually high ratings; a Zogby Analytics poll released hours before he began his remarks showed that 50 per cent of Americans approved of Mr. Obama's performance. In contrast, prime minister Brian Mulroney's approval rating when he left office in 1993 was at a level less than half that.

Even so, approval ratings at the end of a leader's tenure mean little in the historical reckoning. Former president Harry Truman said that it required at least 50 years for the historical dust to settle and for scholars and the public to form a meaningful evaluation. It took, for example, biographies by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough to provide a revisionist look at two presidents who left office with scant support from the public and with little regard from historians, John Adams (president, 1797-1801) and Mr. Truman (1945-1953).

"Our views of presidents change," Mr. McCullough said in an interview Tuesday. "I came to realize that Adams and Truman both deserved more attention than they received. In the long run Obama will be given much more credit than he's been given while he's in office. A lot depends of course on what happens afterwards in the larger world or in our own country – and when the fire in the opponents' eyes and speeches die out." That fire still burns with intensity. Mr. Obama's day began Tuesday with an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, a constant critic of the President, declaring that "Barack Obama has been a historic president but perhaps not a consequential one." The historic part – his role as the first black president – is settled. The consequential part prompted Tuesday's legacy offensive.

In his last high-profile address, he pleaded with the country to "try harder," pointedly reminding Americans that "the stereotypes about immigrants today were said almost word for word about the Irish, and the Italians and the Poles," adding, "America wasn't weakened by the presence of these newcomers."

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In his farewell address in 1989, Ronald Reagan spoke of his first economic summit meeting, held in Montebello, Que., with prime minister Pierre Trudeau as host. "I sat there like the new kid in school and listened, and it was all 'François this' and 'Helmut that,' " Mr. Reagan said. "They dropped titles and spoke to one another on a first-name basis. Well, at one point I sort of leaned in and said, 'My name's Ron.' "

His successor more than a quarter-century later bore the name Barack, and in his farewell, the first black president cited the 1776 Declaration of Independence nostrum that "all men are created equal" and said that while equal rights for centuries have been "self-evident, [they] have never been self-executed."

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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