Presidential Farewell Addresses

In its beginning America was populated by farmers, merchants, common laborers, and an influential minority of highly educated persons, some of whom were plantation owners or part of the intelligentsia. Within each colony, there was a strong sense of social identity and of ambition for self-government. What is remarkable about this time in history is that men and women were willing to forgo colonial self-rule, merge into a union of disparate groups, and follow the enlightened course of our founding fathers. Naturally, this period was chaotic and filled with insecurities. Declaring independence from the British monarch not only invited a military suppression, but exposed the newly formed union to the expeditionary and hegemonic forces of many advanced European countries, like France, Portugal, Spain, and even Russia. Why would this fledgling, young nation expose itself to such foreign threats? Well, our history books have attempted to unravel the many forces and motivations that helped form our revolution and emergence as the new American republic. But, today, two motivations have captured my imagination because of their relevance to present day America: the desire to unite formerly self-governing colonies and the willingness to trust elected representatives to develop a Constitution and form a federal government.

At the outset of the American experience, the Federal Government was tasked to preserve the union and to protect it from foreign threats and interventions. George Washington, in his farewell address to the nation, called this task an “arduous trust.” He not only had led our forces to win American independence, but “contributed towards the organization and administration of the government” and defended it from those subversive European elements intent on dividing it and thereby undermining its independence. In his farewell address to the nation, he stated that our “union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.” He took the occasion of this address to warn the nation of “overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty” and of “designing men (who) may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.” The former message presages President’s Eisenhower’s warning about the “military industrial complex.” The latter message includes both foreign and native provocateurs. It also resonates with Barack Obama’s call for unity in his memorable introduction to the public stage. In his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, he declared that America was not a collection of red states and blue states but that “we are the United States of America.” As President, Obama often ended his speeches with an aspirational quote from the Preamble of our Constitution, restating the purpose of that document “to form a more perfect union.”

Washington was concerned with attempts to undermine America’s fledging union and democratic system from external and internal agencies. The context in which he stated this concern is still relevant. He found “designing men” both within America’s political class and without, in the form of French and English espionage. Further, he identified how they operate to undermine America. Specifically, he condemned obstructionism, which he termed a “fatal tendency.” In his words, it serves “to organize factions . . . to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party . . . to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.” He feared that these factions “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.” He warned that obstructionists would put the “will of the party” ahead of the “power of the people” to elect a representative government. In other words, Washington outlined for future generations what might subvert our union and potentially lead to despotism.

In President Obama’s farewell address, he echoed some of the same concerns but from an historical perspective and with a characteristic touch of hopeful optimism. Since Obama did not foresee his successor’s proposal of an 84 billion dollar increase in military spending over an eighteen month period, he made no mention of concerns about the “military industrial complex.” His Administration had already addressed that possible concern when it ended the trillion dollar deficits incurred by two major wars and began to resize the military to a non-war footing. The Trump Administration inherits a deficit that is one third the size that Obama inherited and a country no longer engaged in any large combat operation. Obama did, however, revisit Washington’s concerns about “designing men” who challenge our constitutionally protected human rights and rule of law. From without, that challenge comes from “violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam” and from those “who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.” From within, he foresaw the threats to our democracy coming from unequal opportunity, discrimination against minorities, irrelevant and uncompromising political debates, and citizen apathy.

Obama reminded us that America is exceptional because it has “shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.” That potential for change and improvement, he warned, “will only be realized if our democracy works.” But “stark inequality is . . . corrosive to our democratic ideal . . . and requires us “to forge a new social compact.” Wealth and income inequality are residual effects of many factors, including government actions, international commerce, and “the relentless pace of automation.” The new social compact should include education that will better prepare our children for the world they will inherit, support for workers “to unionize for better wages,” and tax reform so that those who have benefited “the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.”

The second warning Obama offered is about America’s ongoing struggle with discrimination. He not only included African Americans as recipients of discrimination but also immigrants, refugees, rural poor, the transgender community, and the middle-aged white person left behind by economic, cultural, and/or technological change. It will never be possible to create a more perfect union if Americans are unable to assimilate our diverse community. And that assimilation will not happen unless we learn to put ourselves in other’s shoes and persistently uphold “laws against discrimination—in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.” Besides the democratic and moral imperative for this assimilation, Obama had a persuasive economic justification: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

Obama’s third warning reflected our contemporary struggle with conflict resolution and problem solving that has affected debates around the kitchen table, in news commentaries, and in the chambers of Congress. As he stated the problem, the battle of ideas has evolved into debates “without some baseline of common facts.” Here are just a few current examples—though not mentioned by Obama—that speak to this phenomenon:

➣ “the most recent trade deficit was 800 billion dollars” (President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress). Actually, the trade deficit peaked in 2008 at just above 700 billion dollars, precipitously declined during the Great Recession and has never reached its peak since then. In 2016, the deficit was 502.3 billion, 347 billion of which represented our trade imbalance with China. “As a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product, the goods and services deficit was 2.7 percent in 2016, down from 2.8 percent in 2015” (CB 17-17, released on February 7, 2017 by the US Department of Commerce). This downward trend, except for a slight rise in 2015, has been a feature of the Obama years as American exports have steadily risen;
➣ “we’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved” (President Trump, as quoted above). Actually, America’s manufacturing output is at the highest level in history. The job loss has more to do with the continuing rise of automation than with any NAFTA effect. In fact, millions of jobs are now involved in our export trade with Mexico and Canada, our trading partners under NAFTA.
➣ “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force” (President Trump, as quoted above). Everybody above the age of 15 is included in that number, that is, high school and college students, the disabled, stay-at-home parents, and millions of retirees. Actually, there are 7.6 million people who want to work and are currently unemployed, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number represents 4.7% of the workforce, a significant drop from the 10% unemployment rate at the peak of the Great Recession.

These specific examples are just a few of the many distortions in President Trump’s recent address to Congress. In general, the problem with quoted numbers is context and relevance. Anybody can find numbers that seem to support a position. The ongoing discussion about Obamacare is a relevant example. How does one reconcile the fact that Arizona experienced 116% increase in premiums, while the ACA exchanges across the country averaged a 25% increase and healthcare cost overall increased by only 3.9%, the lowest rate in decades? Well, you have to understand how these numbers reflect the whole system and why they seem to deviate from each other. Without that systemic understanding, it is impossible to reach mutual agreement on any positive intervention into our healthcare system. As Obama stated in his address, “this selective sorting of the facts . . . is self-defeating” for “it betrays the essential spirit of this country—the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.”

President Obama concluded his remarks with an appeal to a more participative citizenry. “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” He urged his fellow Americans to adopt the ideals established in our Constitution. As he put it, that document “has no power on its own . . . we, the people, give it power.” Finally, he concludes his farewell address by drawing excerpts from Washington’s own address:

“. . . self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but ‘from different causes and from different quarters much pains (sic) will be taken . . . to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.’ And so we have to preserve this truth with ‘jealous anxiety;’ that we should reject ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.”

From the beginning of his Presidency until its very end, Barack Obama has never ceased being the community organizer and professor of Constitutional law. His clarion call to America has always been to encourage participation in government in order to form a more perfect union. From our first President to our last, this message is the same. Maybe the threats to our democracy they outlined for us will arouse us from our complacency. If not their warnings, then perhaps our present reality will stir us to action. The promise of America was never self-executing; for only we, its citizens, “can form a more perfect union.”

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