Tuesday night, President Barack Obama said farewell to the nation he has led for the past eight years. Over the course of an hour, he laid out anew his vision of democratic politics driven by empathy and hard work. But his speech – personal, balanced, inspirational – also served as a reminder that Obama has been a leader out of step with his time, a transformative president who failed to transform the country.
Like the most remembered farewell addresses – George Washington's in 1796, Dwight Eisenhower's in 1961 – Obama's speech was as much a warning about the future as a celebration of the past. Those speeches highlighted dangers that the men in office had been unable to resolve.
Washington stepped down from the presidency knowing that his eight years in office had not secured American independence. Predatory empires stalked the edges of the young nation, waiting for the right moment to exploit its weaknesses. Washington understood the country was fragile, possibly too fragile to fight off these rivals. Yet all he could do in his closing message to the nation was urge his fellow citizens to jealously guard their sovereignty in every way possible.
It was this same sense of looming danger that shaped Eisenhower's parting warnings about the military-industrial complex. As president, Ike had overseen the rapid growth of that complex in the early years of the Cold War. Having been both a general and a university president, Eisenhower understood well the growing influence of the military within American institutions. But he was unable to curb its expansion, and as he left the White House, he made clear that he was leaving behind an unsolved problem.
These same dynamics shaped Obama's farewell address. He spent the majority of his speech on the growing threats to American democracy. Carefully sidestepping the largest threat, the coming presidency of Donald Trump, Obama called for Americans to focus on rebuilding democratic institutions. He sounded a call to action: "Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you'll win. Sometimes you'll lose. … More often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed."
That line, rousing as it was, demonstrated why Obama has been less-than-effective in combating the forces of illiberalism amassing on the horizon. "I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic than when we started," he said in his closing moments. If that is true, it suggests that he still does not understand how broken American politics is, how ungovernable the world has become.
Throughout his political career, Obama has shown an unshakable faith in the power of rhetoric, logic and consensus-building. Though the past eight years have been a constant rebuke to that faith, he has kept it still. And there's something admirable about that.
But despite the wars and financial ruin Obama inherited, the dangers facing the United States and the world today are greater than when he took office. If the hope he promised eight years ago sometimes felt naïve, its persistence today feels dangerous. Obama has long believed in the moral arc of history, saying in his speech tonight, "The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some."
Perhaps. But given the recent election, there's a danger in believing in the irresistible forces of progress: It leaves Americans unprepared for a sharp reversal, and the difficult work of fighting the forces of illiberalism. Hope did not prevent Trump's election; hope will not keep democracy intact. Like Washington and Eisenhower before him, Obama was able to point to the gathering storm, but as he said farewell, it was clear he could not protect the country from it.
Originally published in U.S. News & World Report.