As a country, we make a habit of looking forward, not backward. But I’m going to ask you to turn your attention back a few weeks, to Barack Obama’s January 10 farewell address to the American people.
I’ve been reading presidential farewell speeches for many years. Most of them give good advice. This speech, however, was exceptional. It can be read with benefit by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals — because it says a lot of things that we need to hear about our system and our country. I hope that for some time to come, this speech will be a topic of conversation in classrooms, at church socials, and around the table at local service clubs.
Why? To begin with, the speech is filled with confidence in ordinary people and respect for what workaday Americans can accomplish. This is a founding value of our country — both a promise and a call to civic arms. Our rights, the former President notes, “have never been self-executing.” Instead, our system is built around the belief “that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.”
The responsibility for making this a better country, in other words, lies with each of us. “Show up, dive in, stay at it,” he says. “And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed.”
At the same time, throughout the speech, Mr. Obama makes it clear that it’s challenging to make representative democracy work. As a nation, he argues, we have enormous potential — but we cannot take our success for granted. If we don’t “create opportunity for all people,” he warns, “the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”
Indeed, our democracy is being severely tested right now, in part by a disintegrating sense of common ground among Americans of different racial, ethnic, and class background, and in part by the growing ease with which people can retreat into “bubbles” — both geographic and ideological — in which we see only people we identify with and hear only information that already fits our preconceived notions.
This makes the underpinnings of a successful representative democracy — the search for common ground, the willingness to negotiate, the freedom to compromise — difficult if not impossible to pursue.
Yet what may be most striking about the farewell address is that it is filled with hope, and with a clear optimism that we can overcome division and temporary steps backward. Not that this will be easy, Mr. Obama notes. Restoring a sense of common purpose will require a change both in hearts and in beliefs. “We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own,” he says.
Furthermore, he recognizes that while politics is a battle of ideas, “without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.” These are challenges, but they’re hardly insurmountable — especially if we learn to put ourselves in others’ shoes.
As you read this speech, it’s hard to avoid a sense of the basic strength of our country. There’s a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power, a straightforward discussion of race and ways to surmount the burdens that racial discord have imposed on our society, a magnanimity toward ideological adversaries, an underlying sense of inclusiveness and decency. These are wise words from a mature politician who clearly has confidence in the nation’s ability to forge ahead and meet its challenges.
I understand that a lot of people in this country don’t agree with former President Obama on many things. But set aside the person who wrote it for a moment: this speech is instructive for all of us on what this country is all about and how we can make it better.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.