On Tuesday night, at the McCormick Place convention center in his adopted hometown of Chicago, Barack Obama will take the stage one last time as president to do what he does best. Before a crowd of thousands of supporters—some of whom braved the bitter, predawn cold for a ticket release over the weekend—the man whose soaring speeches helped him win the presidency will deliver his farewell address to the nation, reflecting on eight years in office and, as he wrote to the White House email list last week, offering “thoughts on where we all go from here.”
The big question is whether the president will also address the glaring and immediate threats that his successor poses not just to his progressive legacy, but to American democracy itself.
The evidence thus far suggests he won’t. “I’ve had an opportunity to review a very early draft,” press secretary Josh Earnest said last week, “and what I can tell you is that the President is interested in delivering a farewell address that’s forward-looking.” And in a lengthy interview for ABC’s This Week on Sunday, in which George Stephanopoulos gave him ample opportunity to criticize Donald Trump, Obama would only say that he and the president-elect “are sort of opposites in some ways.”
Obama’s reluctance to take on Trump right now is understandable. He’s adhering to the tradition of cooperation between outgoing and incoming administrations, just as George W. Bush did before him. He’s loath to be seen as sabotaging that effort.
By Tuesday, though, the transition will be almost over; Trump will take power just ten days later. What better moment for Obama to sound the alarm?
Farewell addresses are typically unmemorable. They’re moments for presidents to thank the country, tout—or defend—their records, and perhaps outline some broad vision for the future. That’s the approach that both Bush and Bill Clinton took. Yet the best farewell speeches take a different tack.
In 1961, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, one of America’s greatest military generals, presciently spoke of the “grave implications” of the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
The most famous farewell address, though—and the one from which Obama might draw most heavily—is the first, published by George Washington in newspapers nationwide in 1796. Read aloud annually in the United States Senate since 1896, the speech warned of “the insidious wiles of foreign influence”—Russia’s cyber campaign last year obviously comes to mind—but also of the vulnerability of our democracy to politicians intent on abusing it:
However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
Trump is nothing if not cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled—and he’ll have a craven Republican Party in full control of Capitol Hill.
These aren’t ordinary times, so it’s not time for an ordinary farewell address. Though no president has ever attacked his successor by name in the speech—or even challenged the specifics of the incoming administration’s agenda—Obama should consider breaking these norms. He should lay out all of the American values that Trump threatens—religious freedom, racial and gender equality, pluralism, separation of powers, the very rule of law—and make clear he intends to fight for them over the next four years. The Trump resistance is in dire need of leadership, and there’s no one better to provide it.
“I think he’s been right to be as restrained as he has been,” said Lissa Muscatine, a former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. “I do think, though, in this final speech, he should probably issue a shot across the bow of some sort.” She added, “I think this is an unprecedented situation, and I think it may call for an unprecedented acknowledgement of that from the outgoing president.”
As Muscatine pointed out, Obama has a history of giving speeches on polarizing subjects like race and Islam that transcended partisan divides. Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said Obama could do that in his farewell address by broadening his warning.
“It would be nice to hear Obama give a kind of tour of the horizon including things like how damaging money is in politics, on the Democratic side as well as the Republican side,” Widmer said, “[and] the extremely troubling rise of fake news in the last election cycle.” As for going after Trump, he said, “I think there are ways he could do it without being personal—pointing to ways democracy was weakened over the past six months or even the past eight years.”
For as popular as Obama is leaving office, and as much moral authority as he has, there is the risk of expending his precious political capital with a message that feels too partisan. “He’s got a tough situation in that, if he goes too negative, Trump’s extremely vocal supporters will jump all over him,” Widmer said. “If he doesn’t say enough, it’ll seem like pablum.”
Muscatine also doesn’t think Obama should go personal by naming Trump in his address. But she thinks Obama has the skill to take on Trumpism—and defend American democracy—while still maintaining the dignity and grace that have been hallmarks of his presidency.
“This is not about going low,” she said. “This may be about going higher, actually.”