Changing of the guard in DC
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President Obama’s “farewell address” will be delivered tomorrow. Here’s a preview of what to expect – basically a campaign speech – plus some historical context.
FIRST, the president plans to continue residing in the Washington area and remain active in politics behind the scenes so the label for the speech is a misnomer. And the speech will be delivered in Chicago’s McCormick Place (the nation’s largest convention center) to a highly partisan audience. Obama “farewell address” is anything but goodbye, Jennifer Harper, Washington Times, 1/2/17.
Previous farewell addresses were given in the nation’s capital (although President George H. W. Bush’s parting speech shortly before leaving office was delivered at West Point), and they tended to have a statesmanlike tone.
The outgoing presidents were typically returning to private life or at least exiting the political fray. Here’s an example, which seems rather quaint by today’s presidential rock-star standards. Farewell address, Harry S. Truman, 1/15/53.
Next Tuesday, General Eisenhower will be inaugurated as president of the United States. A short time after the new president takes his oath of office, I will be on the train going back home to Independence, Missouri. I will once again be a plain, private citizen of this great Republic. That is as it should be.
Or this from a leader who viewed the presidency as a duty, not a prize. Farewell address, George Washington, 9/19/1796.
I rejoice that the state of your concerns, external as well as internal, no longer renders the pursuit of inclination incompatible with the sentiment of duty or propriety, and am persuaded, whatever partiality may be retained for my services, that in the present circumstances of our country you will not disapprove my determination to retire.
SECOND, much of tomorrow’s speech will likely be devoted to the administration’s purported achievements since 2009 (aka Mr. Obama’s legacy), a subject that has already been much discussed. Here’s a recap of recent statements on this subject.
#At a mid-December press conference, the president began by talking “a little bit about how far we have come over the past eight years.” Transcript: Obama’s end-of-year press conference re Syria, Russian hacking and more, Washington Post, 12/16/16.
•Cited favorable statistics without regard to whether the government played a role in producing them or not, e.g., the unemployment rate “is at 4.6 percent, the lowest in nearly a decade” [however, the number of 16-years-and-older people not in the labor force has grown 18% since 2009]; or “we've cut our dependence on foreign oil by more than half” [largely due to the fracking boom, which was not facilitated by government policies].
•Cited purported accomplishments without acknowledging problems, e.g., took credit for a rising number of Americans with healthcare insurance without mentioning premium increases, soaring deductibles, etc. “When I came into office, 44 million people were uninsured. Today we have covered more than 20 million of them.”
•Claimed creditable budgetary record - “cutting our deficits by nearly two-thirds, and protecting vital investments that grow the middle class” – without mentioning that the national debt increased by nearly $10 trillion (essentially doubled) on his watch.
•Took no responsibility for the rise of ISIS and the deadly civil war in Syria, even though these events were linked to the precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and his own decision to invite Russia to get involved in Syria. “Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone, with the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, and this blood and these atrocities are on their hands.”
•Made it sound like the government has been doing a good job in combatting terrorist threats in the US when, in fact, there has been a disturbing increase in such activity. “Over the past eight years no foreign terrorist organization has successfully executed an attack on our homeland that was directed from overseas.”
•Overall, gave his administration high marks. “. . . almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago. In other words, by so many measures our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started. It is a situation that I'm proud to leave for my successor.”
#The president’s weekly address on 12/31/16 presented an abbreviated version of the press conference recap and ended with his commitment to stick around after he left office and continue supporting the cause.
It’s been the privilege of my life to serve as your President. And as I prepare to take on the even more important role of citizen, know that I will be there with you every step of the way to ensure that this country forever strives to live up to the incredible promise of our founding – that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve every chance to live out our dreams.
#On January 5, in a letter addressed to “my fellow Americans,” the president recapped the purported progress under his aegis at some length. In summary, he inherited a mess, things were now greatly improved, and the challenge would be to continue the work that had been started. Letter from President Obama on cabinet exit memoranda [which are only mentioned at the end of the letter], whitehouse.gov, 1/5/17.
•Then: A spiraling financial crisis threatened to plunge an economy in recession into a deep depression. The very heartbeat of American manufacturing – the American auto industry – was on the brink of collapse. In some communities, nearly one in five Americans were out of work. Nearly 180,000 American troops were serving in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the mastermind of the worst terror attack on American soil remained at large. And on challenges from healthcare to climate change, we’d been kicking the can down the road for way too long.
•Now: Eight years later, an economy that was shrinking at more than eight percent is now growing at more than three percent *** another 20 million American adults know the financial security and peace of mind that comes with health[care] insurance *** the slowest growth in the price of healthcare in fifty years, along with improvements in patient safety that have prevented an estimated 87,000 deaths *** the new health[care] insurance marketplace means that if you lose your job, change your job, or start that new business, you’ll finally be able to purchase quality, affordable care and the security and peace of mind that comes with it *** in many places across the country, clean energy from the wind is now cheaper than dirtier sources of energy *** we also enacted the most sweeping reforms since the Great Depression to protect consumers and prevent a crisis on Wall Street from punishing Main Street ever again *** the stock market has nearly tripled *** the economy is undoubtedly more durable than it was in the days when we relied on oil from unstable nations and banks took risky bets with your money *** last year, the poverty rate fell at the fastest rate in almost fifty years while the median household income grew at the fastest rate on record. And we’ve done it all while cutting our deficits by nearly two-thirds *** with a coalition of more than 70 nations and a relentless campaign of more than 16,000 airstrikes so far, we are breaking the back of ISIL and taking away its safe havens *** through diplomacy, we shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program, opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba, and brought nearly 200 nations together around a climate agreement that could save this planet for our kids *** making strides towards criminal justice reform, making progress towards equal pay, repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and advancing the cause of civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights *** by so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started.
•Path forward: There’s still so much I wish we’d been able to do, from enacting gun safety measures to protect more of our kids and our cops from mass shootings like Newtown, to passing commonsense immigration reform that encourages the best and brightest from around the world to study, stay, and create jobs in America *** we’ve actually begun the long task of reversing inequality *** But as the global economy changes, we’ll have to do more to accelerate these trends, from strengthening unions that speak for workers, to preventing colleges from pricing out hardworking students, to making sure that minimum wage workers get a raise and women finally get paid the same as men for doing the same job. What won’t help is taking healthcare away from 30 million Americans, most of them white and working class; denying overtime pay to workers, most of whom have more than earned it; or privatizing Medicare and Social Security and letting Wall Street regulate itself again – none of which middle-class Americans voted for.
Previous presidents have claimed credit for accomplishments too, but their tone has typically been a bit humbler than the president’s rhetoric will likely be tomorrow. Some mistakes were made, not everyone agreed, it was people who got things done versus the government, etc. Here are several examples.
When Franklin Roosevelt died, I felt there must be a million men better qualified than I, to take up the presidential task. But the work was mine to do, and I had to do it. And I have tried to give it everything that was in me. Through all of it, through all the years that I have worked here in this room, I have been well aware I did not really work alone—that you were working with me. No President could ever hope to lead our country, or to sustain the burdens of this office, save as the people helped with their support. I have had that help—you have given me that support—on all our great essential undertakings to build the free world's strength and keep the peace. Harry S. Truman, farewell address, 1/15/53.
I understand after 4 years in this office, as few others can, how formidable is the task the new president-elect is about to undertake, and to the very limits of conscience and conviction, I pledge to support him in that task. I wish him success, and Godspeed. Jimmy Carter, farewell address, 1/14/81.
I've been asked if I have any regrets. Well, I do. The deficit is one. I've been talking a great deal about that lately, but tonight isn't for arguments, and I'm going to hold my tongue. But an observation: I've had my share of victories in the Congress, but what few people noticed is that I never won anything you didn't win for me. They never saw my troops, they never saw Reagan's regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every call you made and letter you wrote demanding action. Well, action is still needed. If we're to finish the job. Reagan's regiments will have to become the Bush brigades. Soon he'll be the chief, and he'll need you every bit as much as I did. Ronald Reagan, farewell address, 1/11/89.
Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks. There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I've always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions. George W. Bush, farewell address, 1/15/09.
Third, there have been instances in which an outgoing president offered genuinely insightful advice about the future – but this isn’t the norm and we doubt any advice of this nature will be offered tomorrow.
Thus, after announcing that he would not be seeking a third term, America’s first president waxed philosophical. George Washington, farewell address, 9/19/1796.
Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present to offer to your solemn contemplation and to recommend to your frequent review some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel.
Washington went on to warn against regional rivalries, excessive “spirt of party,” disrespect for constitutional limits, accumulation of debt, and undue partiality or antipathy for other nations. He also suggested that religion and morality are indispensable to political prosperity. “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Many years later, another former general warned against allowing the military-industrial complex and/or scientific-technological elite to run amok. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1/17/61.
•This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.
• Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present--and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
And another departing president offered some sage advice about the federal budget, which his successors unfortunately did not heed. Bill Clinton, farewell address, 1/18/01.
. . . America must maintain our record of fiscal responsibility. Through our last four budgets we've turned record deficits to record surpluses, and we've been able to pay down $600 billion of our national debt—on track to be debt-free by the end of the decade for the first time since 1835. Staying on that course will bring lower interest rates, greater prosperity, and the opportunity to meet our big challenges. If we choose wisely, we can pay down the debt, deal with the retirement of the baby boomers, invest more in our future, and provide tax relief.
* * * * *
What are the implications of the president’s preoccupation with preserving his agenda, much of which the incoming administration is threatening to junk? In effect, he seems to be trying to create a “shadow government” such as may be found in parliamentary systems.
If so, this will hardly calm the partisan rivalries of recent years, which many observers have decried (typically when the observer’s preferred party was being blocked, otherwise not so much). Let’s hope not, because the likely result would be continuing gridlock in Washington and a growing temptation to cut constitutional corners.
That’s basically how the Roman Republic came to an end. Cicero: Ancient classics for modern readers, 1800s.
#WE have to wait and see. SAFE director
Here’s an after the fact report that was very much in line with our predictions that the farewell address would basically be a campaign speech. Campaigner in chief can’t resist one last rally, Jason Russel, Washington Examiner, 1/10/17. See also the speech transcript.
#Several comments from supporters of the Convention of the States project were posted on SAFE’s Facebook page. Here’s one from Michael Codding:
Citizens concerned for the future of their country, under a federal government that's increasingly bloated, corrupt, reckless and invasive, have a constitutional option. We can call a Convention of States to return the country to its original vision of a limited federal government that is of, by and for the people. Help restore Liberty
Our response: SAFE is on board with the COS project. See our two-part series, “It’s time to reboot the political system,” which was posted on 5/30/16 and 6/6/16.