Obama, The Health of Our Democracy

In the legacy of every leader, there are a trail of breadcrumbs left behind to guide us through the woods of uncertainty. A beacon that serves as a reminder of our history yet guiding us to a more fulfilling future. Individually, we challenge ourselves to live in the present and experience each historical moment with the attention authenticity requires albeit inextricably regulated by the inflexible rules of time. I thought about this the morning Obama was set to deliver his farewell address in Chicago, 5 miles away from my apartment, I wondered if his farewell speech would move me the way that his A More Perfect Union  did and does to this day. Better yet, does the current political climate of “alternative facts” and respectability politics create an analogous set of conditions to that of Rev. Wright, which facilitate a uniquely special moment like March 18, 2008 in Philadelphia.

Not to be confused by the passionate football rallying cries delivered to galvanize a party. Rather, the uncomfortable truth that candor provides when delivered at a time when we need it most.

This isn’t a speech being given by an incumbent president vying for reelection, rather a guy who is about to ride off into the sunset having reached the pinnacle of American achievement. Yet, the lens by which we ultimately view the legacy of our first black president is still taking form, largely thanks to the unconscionable behavior of the new president and his handpicked administration.

As we follow the trail of Obama’s last few speeches it leads us to understand and appreciate the circumstances surrounding the timing of his Jan. 10th speech. Which was, and arguably still is, an outwardly divided country evaluating itself after a historically contentious and hate filled campaign lead by the, now, president with the lowest initial presidential approval rating in the modern polling era. On January 10, 2017  in the city where it all started, Obama challenged us to evaluate our common purpose and remember what democracy requires.

Understand, democracy does not require uniformity.  Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.

In this moment Obama has the world at his fingertips and history tell us that Presidents typically use their farewell addresses as an opportunity to pound their chest and shower us with their achievements. But that didn’t really happen. Obama, similar to Eisenhower’s 1961 warning of the military industrial complex, used this opportunity to warn the nation of threats to our democracy. Obama sets the stage very direct and to the point:

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism — these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland. In other words, it will determine our future.

Obama begins by explaining that threats to our unity as Americans also have an impact on our democracy. He cautions that our future ability to “educate our kids, create jobs, and protect our homeland” is predicated on how we respond to the “challenges to our democracy.”  What, actually, binds each of us together so that we stand in unison as Americans, not just at the 11th hour when the timing requires a political pass from the otherwise spineless criticism used to denigrate your opponent and re-package bigotry as patriotism? Rather, as Obama says, “a basic sense of solidarity” that we “rise and fall as one.”

Again, remember, this is a left hand turn from the tradition of presidential farewell addresses dating back to Eisenhower. At the time, Eisenhower was warning that parts of government (i.e. military) could be used to benefit major suppliers of military equipment, and the military itself, instead of the American people during the cold war. Essentially he’s saying, building all these shiny new weapons is awesome but there are some real consequence that, if not checked, could make our democracy become a “insolvent phantom of tomorrow.” Lets look at Eisenhower’s famous quote:

Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Since context matters, Eisenhower drops this quote in his farewell speech – sounding familiar – when he is being replaced by John F. Kennedy. Yes, the same J.F.K who said during his inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Eisenhower, unlike Obama, had to deal with Kennedy who had a scorching hot approval rating coming into office (over 70%). By contrast, Obama had a 59% approval rating coming into office and Trump is sitting at a 39%  avg. approval rating and a staggering 35% approval rating among independents. To call that a mandate is a gross distortion of reality…but lets stay on topic.

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The first threat to our democracy Obama identifies is economic inequality. In the matter-of-fact tone that only a two term president walking out the door can deliver:

To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity….for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class. That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal…too many of our families, have been left behind…convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Obama acknowledges that a number of Americans have given up and do not participate in the democratic process. He’s not wrong either. Out of the 231 million eligible voters in 2016 only 138 million of them voted. Which means over 90 million people did not vote. Obama suggest that economic inequality also contributes to the corrosion of our “democratic ideal” particularly, the faith that we have in government. Many conservatives have argued that Hillary Clinton’s economic message, or lack thereof, contributed to Trump’s shocking election success. Obama notes that, “We can argue about how to best achieve these goals.  But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves.”

The second threat to our democracy Obama identifies is race relations.

There’s a second threat to our democracy — and this one is as old as our nation itself.  After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America.  And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.  Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society….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….So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system. That is what our Constitution and our highest ideals require.

By this point, the patters make his larger message more clear. Obama started this speech by reminding us that democracy requires a “basic sense of solidarity” that we “rise and fall as one.” He says that economic inequality and race relations undermine that basic sense of harmony because they divide us into groups where we only accept information that falls in line with our preexisting beliefs, and without that basic sense of harmony our democracy doesn’t work very well. All of which ties back to his point that all of the challenges we face seek to divide us into isolated groups, and the effects of isolating ourselves within our polarized ideological safe spaces will ultimately ruin American Democracy and all that it provides.

What stands out to me most is Obama acknowledging that disagreeing and arguing on how best to prioritize and achieve our goals is natural, positive and should be embraced and promoted. Obama says that ideological disagreement should be “expected” and is “required” of a healthy democracy. Where he draws the line is how we go about expressing those disagreements and turning – what should be – common goals into a 12 round Mayweather fight.

But politics is a battle of ideas.  That’s how our democracy was designed.  In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them.  But 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, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.

Yes, the former leader of the free world has to remind citizens that it is ok to have a battle of ideas, but it is not ok to stab your neighbor in the eye during the battle. Or better yet we cannot have an honest battle of ideas if one side (or both) isn’t listening or refuses to accept that their opponent might be right on a few things. Folks, if this is what we are teaching adults in 2017 what in hell do you think we are teaching our kids?

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It should not be disputed that America is a country of immigrants, many of which are looking to build a better life. Immigrants love for America often stems from the fact that America affords them and their families freedom, safety and opportunity not otherwise available to them. The list of immigrants who have risked their lives to help improve America is endless. Yet, in present day America immigrants are viewed, by a considerable number of people, as not loving America as much as those born here. Immigrants are viewed, by a considerable number of people, as a “threat” to American jobs and our democratic elections. The isolationist assumption being immigrants are bad and hurt Americans – figuratively and literally. Just like Obama talked about, the arguments make it us vs them. Democrats vs Republicans. Immigrants vs Americans. Middle class vs wealthy. Invariably, the way these arguments are characterized is that one side loves America and the other side wants us to burn to the ground. Obama addresses this directly:

So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder.  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.

Obama’s choice of words here really jump out at me. Worth. Value. On a stage like this, why does Obama find it necessary to make an argument on behalf of children to remind adults that all children are worthy of love? Seriously, all children are worthy of love. At what point in American life did we start evaluating who is and who is not deserving of love? Better yet, who is the arbiter, who gets to decide an individuals worthiness of love? What is the barometer by which we measure an individuals love for their country? Does kneeling during the national anthem automatically mean I don’t love America, and therefore I am not deserving and worthy of being listened too or even loved? Does being born in another country automatically mean I am not worthy of being treated with dignity and respect?

This is the current health of our democracy.

In 2017, in the eyes of someone who has arguably seen and heard it all, Obama’s words are an alarming characterization of the current state of our politics. We have reached a point where we must literally remind people that every single person in America should be given the benefit of the doubt as to how much they love their country. Where one of the final messages a two term president leaves us is that all children are worthy of love.

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In some ways I wish Obama would have followed tradition and told us how awesome everything is going. But hiding from the truth is not productive. We all hold a level of culpability. The onus of responsibility has always been on us, the citizens, to be the change that we seek and not allow politics to undermine our basic democratic principles. Even Eisenhower had the same message regarding who, ultimately, will be responsible for ensuring the survival of our democratic processes. Although lost on many, Obama’s campaign slogs of hope and change, were a passionate plea to remember that we are the change we are waiting for. When ordinary people get involved and demand change, that is when change happens.

Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.  All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote. When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service…

But remember, none of this happens on its own.  All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging…

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift.  But it’s really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning.  With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge…

We cannot take this responsibility for granted. Democracy is not free. It requires you. It requires you to understand the basics. It requires you to listen and pay attention. It requires you to participate – not just when there is an election. I challenge you to ask yourselves, have you accepted this responsibility? In 10-20 years when high-school textbooks are updated, what side of history will you be on? Will you be part of the 90 million Americans who sat on the sidelines watching our country argue about whose children are worthy of being loved and who is more American? Will you put your thoughts and ideas in the ring for deliberation? According to our former president, your answer to these questions will determine our future.




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