Editor's note: This is a two-part series on Obama’s farewell speech and Trump’s inaugural address.
On Tuesday, Jan. 10, President Barack Obama will say goodbye to the nation as the 44th president. Just 10 days later Donald Trump will say hello as America’s 45th president. Farewell and inaugural addresses have been with us from the founding of our nation. Endings and beginnings matter. Goodbyes and hellos have meaning. How each man approaches, writes and delivers his address will have an impact on the direction of the country.
Today we focus on Obama’s farewell.
You say goodbye
In announcing his farewell address, Obama referenced George Washington’s farewell as the model he would follow. He would be incredibly wise to pursue Washington’s “Warnings of a Parting Friend” as a pattern. Of the 6,088 words contained in Washington’s farewell, nearly all are about the future and what it would take for the country, and the American people, to remain free and strong. Washington spoke little of what he had done as president, other than to ask forgiveness for any wrongs his administration might have committed. He was humble enough to know the success of the nation was due to good people and divine providence and acknowledged the mistakes and failures that were his.
However, for many presidents the farewell address has been more of a self-indulgent review of their time in office with spotlights on their successes, a whitewash of their failures and an attempt to declare their own legacy. On Friday, Obama issued a cover letter to the American people sadly signaling that his farewell address will likely be more self-centered and self-promoting than instructive and forward-moving.
I have always had a saying for my teenage children that applies to outgoing and incoming presidents — “If you have to declare it, you aren’t it!” Teenagers love to declare, “I am an adult,” usually right before they are about to do something very childish.
Obama should avoid the temptation to declare his greatness, his success or what he believes his legacy will be. Washington-like humility would go a long way in allowing his true legacy to emerge.
The president is known as a brilliant orator and lecturer, but that doesn’t make him an authentic communicator. His final address would be the perfect time to shed the supercool, aloof persona and authentically look the American people in the eye and share something of his soul. He could highlight the struggles every president faces, the doubt encountered in facing daunting problems, the heavy burdens he surely bore in making difficult decisions and the hope he continues to have for the country in the days ahead.
At a time when national unity is desperately needed, Obama could remind us of our better angels and the goodness he has seen and experienced in the American people over the past eight years. Offering up a list of things he and the first family learned from hardworking Americans would be brilliant.
Like Washington, he could warn of foreign threats, the challenges of divisive political party rhetoric and the need for Americans to be good and do good for the country to be great.
Obama could close his goodbye by telling the American people what he is going to do in the days and weeks ahead while admitting that he sometimes fell short of these ideals. Something like this: “My fellow Americans, I know we aren’t always the UNITED States of America. Over the past eight years we haven’t always agreed on specific policies and programs — and that is OK — that is part of what makes us strong as a nation.
“Today I am asking you as your president, as your soon-to-be-former president and as a citizen of this great nation to unite with me on three action items: (1) Pray for the new administration every day. I never realized how important and powerful prayers, positive thoughts and good wishes were until I walked into the Oval Office. (2) Regardless of where you are on the ideological spectrum, join me in elevating the dialogue in our homes, in our communities and especially online. We are a nation founded on big ideas, and we are always at our best when we debate and discuss those ideas in ways that uplift and inspire. (3) Do something, anything, to serve someone in your neighborhood or community who is in need. We need to get back to watching out for each other, serving and doing good — because we can.
“Many think that hope and change were just catchy campaign slogans. As your president, I have come to learn a lot about hope. I know hope is never to be found in a political party or a person — but in the American people. Change will continue to come — as a country we will create and drive it to build a better world for everyone. Change is the essence of who we are.
“In saying goodbye, I say hello to another new chapter in our nation’s history and the forward march of liberty and justice for all.”
That kind of goodbye would get George Washington’s approval, do wonders for the nation and lead to the right kind of legacy — one that would actually last.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.