Obama’s act of departure

Barack Obama’s farewell speech was an ode to democracy, a playing out of a ritual faith in the Constitution and in the people of the U.S. When a leader and the people renew their faith, democracy comes alive

January 14, 2017 12:04 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:58 pm IST

U.S. President B arack Obama’s farewell address in Chicago this week was an epic event , a drama in political dialogue which people sensed as a terrific performance.

Mr. Obama’s farewell address was more than an act of departure. It was an act of renewal. Being a talented speaker, he could combine many messages and performances to create a memorable moment. Through his speech he created a magical space, an epiphany on the power of the people and people in power. In this way, an act of departure became an act of healing, of community, of solidarity, a ritual which recharged the U.S.’s faith in democracy. It was an eloquent moment enacted with a full sense of almost operatic power.

From President to citizen

In his body language, there was an ease about being in power and there was also an ease about his giving up power. A farewell is a ritual where a president becomes citizen again. Mr. Obama was clear that for all the facts of empire and nationhood, the real hero of American democracy is the citizen. There was humour in the act where he referred to his lame duck status.

He began his speech easily and informally. His relationship with the American people was not one of demagogic distance or charismatic power but possessed the homeliness and the humility of a conversation. He claimed that his conversation with the American people kept him honest and made him “a better president” and “a better man”.


A moment of departure is a moment of remembrance. As applause punctuated literally every sentence, Mr. Obama recollected that he began his career in Chicago working with church groups “in the shadow of closed steel mills”. He enacted his biography as the biography of all migrants, renewing America’s openness to all oppressed people. For him, two magic words sustain the miracle called America: people and change, both working through the institutions of democracy. For Mr. Obama, democracy is the force of alchemy which sustains both individual dreams while creating a notion of the common good.

Yet democracy, he claimed, for all its vitality can never be taken for granted. An act of indifference is an act of betrayal because democracy demands perpetual participation. The ritual of citizens’ participation is the only perpetual machine that keeps democracy as faith and action alive. Living democracy and dreaming democracy helps recreate democracy. The renewal of faith and the reinvention of citizenship are continuous in a functioning democracy.

The power of his narrative was moving. It was as if he had the vision of the founding fathers in his blood. The audience was touched, even moved to tears as acclamation became a ritual of solidarity. The impact was charismatic, folksy, everyday and one sensed that no demagogue or dictator could achieve this music of democracy which one calls trust. The American dream has moved migrants, refugees, pioneers, slaves, women to organise.


A path to renewal

Mr. Obama recognised that democracy is not a flawless machine, yet it works . He talked of the achievements of his own terms and shared his achievements with the people. There was and is a shared pride in the achievements of the Obama era. The sincerity, the authenticity made one wonder how this same America became a post-truth society, allowing someone such as Donald Trump to become president.

The context nibbles at the text but the message sustains itself. A democracy that believes in itself renews itself. People’s faith recreates people’s power. In fact, Mr. Obama showed that even the transition of power is a moment to be proud of, emphasising the power of institution over the idiosyncrasy of individuals. It is democracy that renews America.

Democracy, he explained, like an easy preacher, does not require uniformity. It creates solidarity through difference. He emphasised that solidarity and uniformity created two different worlds of unity.

Mr. Obama spelt out the challenges to democracy — a sense of economic opportunity, a sense that economics is not a zero-sum game.

Yet, the changes in technology now threaten this solidarity. Politics has to create a new social compact to meet new needs. Mr. Obama did not hide the dangers to democracy, be it race or terror. Yet he emphasised the need to avoid paranoia, and insisted on empathy, where one cannot frame every issue as a struggle between a hardworking middle class and an undeserving minority. He cited Harper Lee’s great character Atticus Finch, who claimed that you never understand a man till you get into his skin, and demanded that the immigrant empathises with the white American whose world is capsizing through economic change. It was a powerful plea for empathy, where citizenship demands that we take on the role of the other. A democracy which does not empathise with the other becomes a world of stereotypes, which seeks comfort in sameness.

There was a magic to the narrative as the audience responded to the pedagogy of the ideals. He added that democracy is a battle of ideas, but ideas which explore difference on the basis of reason. This demanded the concession that even an opponent might be making a valid point.

Mr. Obama moved to a poetic sense of the American faith in change, in innovation, hailing what he called the spirit of the Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral. It is a spirit of innovation based on a rule of law and a faith in human rights.

He warned that this faith is being challenged. But the only answer to this was a renewal of the American spirit of democracy. A threat to democracy demands more democracy. It is a battle which democracy has extended abroad challenging the Islamic State in every front. Yet he realised that terror must be fought legally otherwise terror turns us into monsters.

Mr. Obama’s speech was an ode to democracy, a playing out of a ritual faith in the Constitution, in the people. It was moving, poignant and yet easy in its diction. A leader and a people renew faith, and in the very act of renewal democracy comes alive.

Rhetoric hides the cracks

There is power and simplicity to the act because there is a faith which binds drama and everydayness. Watching it one knew that no Vladimir Putin, Jacob Zuma, Narendra Modi or Theresa May could have pulled this off. There was a magic to it that one responded to. For a few moments an old-fashioned America came alive and Mr. Trump and paranoid fears of the new society receded. Mr. Obama, as Canute, had reversed the tides so that America could once again believe in democracy.

Yet, one must remember that moments of renewal are moments of erasure. The power of the performance, the easy rhetoric hides the cracks in the regime, the crevices through which Mr. Trump broke in. Rituals of farewell require rites of critique, and if America is a vital democracy, these will follow soon. Acclamation and solidarity in a moment of cultural crisis strike an odd note but a presidential farewell is a true American melodrama. One wishes the effect would continue but a farewell is a closure, the end of an era. The storyteller waits anxiously for the new to unfold.

Shiv Visvanathan is director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, Jindal Global Law School, and the writer of Theatres of Democracy.

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