Barack Obama's farewell speech: Gratitude, vigilance and grace mark POTUS' swansong

"It's not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it's self-defeating. Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you."

- Barack Obama at his farewell speech

On that note, let's start with a few facts:

One: There will be plenty of reports, opinion pieces, analyses and critiques written about a particular farewell address that was in the news on Wednesday morning.
Two: There will be so many that you won't have the time to read all of them this lifetime.
Three: The article you are about to read is the only that includes professional wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson, actor Chris Tucker and President Barack Obama.
Four: Just saying.

And now on with the show.

 Barack Obamas farewell speech: Gratitude, vigilance and grace mark POTUS swansong

President Barack Obama arrives before speaking at McCormick Place in Chicago. AP

President Barack Obama (it still feels slightly surreal to imagine that in a little over a week, there will be a 'former' tacked on to the start of that phrase) delivered a farewell address at Chicago's McCormick Place on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning IST) that was as high on emotion as it was rich with insight and pointers for the future. His delivery was as-always spot-on and the man has turned the art of switching from being a professorial figure to an avuncular one and right back, into a science. His final address as President of the United States was no exception. It would, however, be remiss of us not to go over one very key aspect.

But first, a little digression.

Anyone who watched World Wrestling Entertainment/Federation in the late 1990s-early 2000s will undoubtedly be familiar with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson. Before he began dabbling with the world of cinema, The Rock was known for the 'electrifying' (sorry, it could not be helped) promos he used to cut. And while the target of his ire varied from week to week and storyline to storyline, his delivery was a constant throughout his best years with the organisation. He would enter the ring, look around at his captive audience, flare his nostrils every so slightly, soak in the raucous cheers and chants and 'finally' (sorry again, but this one really couldn't be helped), in his own time, would speak.

A mild sense of déjà vu set in when Obama began his farewell speech, particularly in the way he took a moment to purse his lips, breathe in the adulation, drink in the applause and savour the appreciation from a crowd that had gathered to express their gratitude to a man for giving them eight years of his life. Not everything worked, as he was quick to point out and the American citizens may not have always agreed with him. Nevertheless, they were there to give him a warm send-off. And like Johnson's onscreen persona did every week, Obama too took his own time.

President Barack Obama waves as he speaks during his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago. AP

President Barack Obama waves as he speaks during his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago. AP

Perhaps he realised that after a breakneck eight years, it was finally time to take a little breather and slow things down for once.

"If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history... if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran's nuclear weapons programme without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11... if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — you might have said our sights were set a little too high."

Viewed together, that is a formidable stack of achievements that goes some way in underscoring just how breakneck the period between 20 January, 2009 and the present day has been. But he displayed a sense of mature humility by crediting the American people with all those achievements.

"That's what you did. You were the change. You answered people's hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started."

Maybe he said that because he is a genuinely humble person. Or maybe he said it because he was aware of the criticism to which he was leaving himself open.

As stated earlier, not everything worked. Just look at the rise of the Islamic State, which is unfortunately a product — whether directly or indirectly — of American policy. And while you wouldn't expect a farewell speech to list policy and governance failures, Obama didn't sidestep them either. He couched them rather succinctly in the part of his speech that dealt with threats to democracy.

1) "Democracy won't work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity" — This can be interpreted as a nod to the Occupy movement and the rising discontent among the middle class.

2) "Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society" — The Black Lives Matter movement and the series of incidents across the US that saw white people and black people kill each other appear to have been the focus of this section.

3) "Without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we'll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible" — As loud an clear an indictment of the post-truth movement as you could expect.

4) "The post-Second World War order is now being challenged — first, by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power" — Radical Islam and Russia appear to have been the target of this section.

5) "Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are" — Logically, the next threat Obama went into was that posed by Islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiment.

6) "Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions" — This one can be seen as a reference both to the Republicans put off by the election of Trump and the disenfranchised Democrats still gutted at Bernie Sanders' inability to overcome Hillary Clinton. In a word, he seemed to be exhorting the people to 'organise'.

President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address at McCormick Place. AP

President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address at McCormick Place. AP

His set of six points served less as a critique or indictment than a set of guidelines for the future — professorial to the end. There were points where it felt like the last day of college. The exams are done and dusted, and it's the last time you're being addressed by the professor before you head out into the big bad world.

But while his manner and tone gave the speech the feel of a campaign pitch rather than a farewell speech, there was no gloating, no taking of credit, no insulting his detractors. Alongside vigilance (as described in the 'threats to democracy' section), gratitude seemed to be the underlying motif of Obama's speech. He teared up as he thanked his wife, his daughters and his 'brother' Vice-President Joe Biden, everyone who has worked alongside him and the American people at large.

But there was another interesting theme that emerged.


The problem with word clouds is that they often pick up frequently-used articles, prepositions, conjunctions and the like, which pours water on any efforts to analyse the contents of a section of text. In this scenario though, the results are very revealing. Take a look at the word cloud above depicting Obama's farewell speech. The most commonly used word was 'just' as in 'in just eight years' or 'just a piece of parchment' or 'not just misguided'. However, a deeper look at the word itself provides us with a very handy adjective for Obama and his presidency: 'Just'

Again, not everything went according to plan with the fallout from the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning affairs being two cases in point. But for the most part, as a politician, as a statesman, as the most powerful person on the planet, Obama's tenure can be quite accurately described as 'just'. From seeking equal marriage rights to batting for immigrants and taking on bullies at home and abroad, the legacy of the Obama presidency will be that it was largely a just one. And I can't find a better word to describe his fair and balanced speech either.

Sometime in the early 1990s, a skinny young comedian from Atlanta, Georgia called Chris Tucker took the stage at the Def Comedy Jam. He shared with his audience his view of what the the White House would be like if the US was to have a black president (NSFW video of the show).

A black brother will f*** up the White House. Like the grass won't be cut, dishes piled up, cousins running through the White House, cookouts, basketball going in the back, broken down cars all down to s**t in the driveway. A brother won't clean out the tub when he gets out of there. The president will get p**sed off somebody drank the whole bottle of Kool-Aid. A black president, he's too proud, ain't gonna have no bodyguard. A black president — he's gonna have a gun. Somebody tries to f*** him up, he f*** them (up), "Hey n*gga!" (mimics automatic gunfire). Like, "Damn! The president f***ed somebody up! Did you see that s**t, man?"

Hilarious and inappropriate in equal parts, the routine was obviously done with Tucker's tongue buried deep in his cheek, but the fact is that the US has had its first Black president.

The adoring crowd chanting "Four more years!" goes to show Barack TheRock Obama didn't do too bad at all.

Updated Date: Jan 11, 2017 11:19:29 IST