Obama’s final speech was celebration, pause and harbinger.
Written by Bridget Clerkin
Farewell, reason. Farewell, measure. Farewell, you ugly and unpopular and slow plod toward progress.
The President’s swan song was a declaration of its times, in turns anxious and strained, beseeching even, but stirring and hopeful; a parent sending his child out into the world, breath held tight and fingers crossed.
His presence in full force, his powers at their apex, he willed us through the memories of a turbulent eight years and warned of the tumultuous era at hand, of the unraveling seams of our Great Patchwork Nation.
The thankless task of ushering us into this tenuous age accepted—with more grace and dignity than our small, mean convictions deserve—he offered us defense against the coming trials, a trail of hopeful breadcrumbs in his wake.
We must accept our differences; unify behind our shared interests; look our changing world in the face and adapt to it honestly, he told us. We must be patient and passionate in our cause, and know our responsibilities toward the common good are shared.
But as it has so often before, the growing shadow of our time worked to eclipse that resilient glimmer.
Once again Tuesday night we saw the president revert to his familiar and ugliest posture: one of a philosophical man grappling with a brutally physical world. A quiet, calm figure lost in a riot. Words of reason wasted on our infuriated, deaf ears.
He spoke of belief in Democracy and national duty; a resolve to protect and preserve the virtue of America that will supersede our deep divisions. But for all the beauty of the words, the delivery betrayed a man trusting in the inherent goodness of The People in the same way he’s accepted that those people allowed for the creation of this new world—reluctantly, and in degrees.
In holding us up as a beaming example, he was cautious, wary always of the fragility of that standing. References to the questionable activities of other lurking superpowers, meant to cast us in the light of the hero, instead painted us all in the same shades of grey. Squint and you could see the vultures circling round our weakened democratic body.
Though it was also clear that some of the glorious burden had already slipped off his shoulders. The sly braggadocio returned to his posture, he recounted the once seeming impossibility of his candidacy with the relief of a man at the end of a grueling crucible, each new line etched in his face duly earned.
The Genuine Man we elected, the one who worked in the streets and not the Ivory Tower, once again returned to sea level to speak with us on common ground.
But never did his embrace of that commonality seem more honest than when he addressed his wife. A beautiful reminder of the humanity of the office, so often and easily overlooked by all it represents. A true nod to the historic emotions we will only begin to understand long after they’re gone.
Back in stride, free, at last, to deliver his final message, the President wound his way toward his conclusion with the familiar refrain of hope; the belief in the unwavering march of progress.
The struggle will get worse, he said. The fight is far from over. But the stakes are too high to walk away now. In the bleakest of times, it is the most important to stay positive. When it seems the easiest to give in is when we must never give up.
It was the Obama of Hope and Change. The optimism we embraced what seems like so many years ago restored, if only temporarily.
The passionate flames of patriotism stoked, our president called us to action: Be the change you demand. Be the better world you deserve.
The President’s swan song was a declaration of the ages, in turns present and prescient, foreboding even, but ultimately optimistic; a tribute to democracy’s imperfect beauty.
It’s fitting, then, that it was bookended by two historical rallying cries to citizenship: one old, one new, both as relevant as they have ever been: “We the people.” “Yes we can.”
Bridget Clerkin is a writer in sunny Southern California who likes New York Giants football, world travel, and mainlining the universe.