January 11, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, January 11, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Pres. Obama's farewell address: Reflecting back on the legacy of the 44th president
Speaking to a crowd of about 20,000 gathered at McCormick Place, the convention center there in Chicago, Illinois, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, gave his much-advertised farewell address to the nation. The idea of a president giving such an address, especially a president who had served two full terms, is hardly new. The first President of the United States set the example when George Washington also gave what is now historically known as his farewell address. In that address he warned the nation against two big political dangers. The first was what he called entangling alliances, that was an activist foreign-policy that would involve American interests with the interests of other nations. The second great danger he warned of was partisanship and the development of polarizing political parties. Over time, both of those warnings were fulfilled in terms of the destiny of the American Republic, the rise of political parties and of America as an international power. Entangling alliances are now very much a part of American life.
In more contemporary American history, major farewell addresses were given by President Eisenhower in 1960 and by President Ronald Reagan in 1989. But we also need to note that the President’s address last night, lasting almost a full hour in the context with a vast assembled crowd and so much publicity, stood in stark contrast to the very low-key affairs of the two previous incumbents of the White House, both William Jefferson Clinton and George W. Bush. Both of those presidents gave very brief farewell addresses, about 15 minutes on average, and both of them spoke from the White House; they did not speak from a vast political assembly. But this is the style of President Barack Obama.Show Full Transcript
We are not certain yet how history will view this President, but one thing is already very clear, and that is that this President is adept as a politician at running for office and last night looked very much like a campaign event. He was less effective, I think it’s fair to say in terms of the verdict of history, in terms of the actual art and science of governance.
Last night in effect, President Obama returned to his strength, taking what amounts to a rhetorical victory lap. And of course behind this is concern for his legacy. The concern for presidential legacy is hardly new to President Obama. It must certainly at least have been on the mind of George Washington and it was more evidently on the mind of many of his successors, including William Jefferson Clinton and also Ronald Reagan, but also we need to note Franklin Roosevelt and long before that, just about every major president who served at an important historical juncture. But it’s very difficult to measure legacy in the short term, and this president has a particular challenge because his legacy is going to be very much at stake in the administration of his successor, President-elect Donald J. Trump.
The crowd that was gathered last night heard a talking president. This is a president whose leadership has so often come down to rhetoric—that’s not necessarily a liability, after all, it was back in 2004, the Democratic National Convention that a very young Illinois State Senator named Barack Obama gained national attention by talking, by giving a very, very effective and very memorable address. Barack Obama as a newly elected United States Senator in 2008 used those same skills when he entered the Democratic primary and challenged the unquestioned front runner for that primary election, and of course that was Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the Senator from New York. And of course, history tends to come back with ironies, and it did so in this election cycle in the year 2016 as Barack Obama ended his second term.
Thinking of the speech itself, it is not likely to be remembered for soaring rhetoric or for any particular point. It is rather to be more likely remembered as an event, and that’s true for so many of President Obama’s major speeches. They are not memorable so much for anything that he said, unlike for instance John F. Kennedy. It is not so much the case that anyone remembers President Obama in order to quote him; there’s nothing like those famous quotes from Kennedy, especially in his inaugural address in 1961. Instead, what we see is a far more familiar pattern of events becoming the issues themselves or at least the point themselves in so many cases. There is also an emotional poignancy to this kind of event. After all, saying farewell is always an emotional event. Last night it was also clear just in terms of the visuals that Barack Obama leaving the presidency is not exactly the same man who entered the White House when he was elected in 2008. Graying hair is a hallmark of the presidency.
Something else to note last night is that what the President said was largely noncontroversial. That is to say, if you were to take the text of the addresses I have and you were to look at the thousands of words that are contained in it, virtually any president could’ve said many of these words from either party, and most Americans would unquestionably agree with most of the sentences and propositions he offered. It’s the ones with which many would not agree that are likely to have a great deal of attention. In his self-styled victory lap taken in Chicago last night, President Obama sought to identify the hallmarks in the highlights of his administration, claiming of course as every president would be want to do vast political achievements. And yet it is already clear that in terms of legislation, President Obama will be one of the least consequential presidents in American history.
He is known primarily for one piece of legislation, a piece of legislation so identified with him that it most often bears his name, the Affordable Care Act, which is more popularly known as ObamaCare. And that legislative achievement came at great cost, especially the cost of polarization. Not one Republican in either house of Congress voted for the legislation. At the end of the battle President Obama simply said, “I won.” But in a political system that is democratic, one of the things you have to note is that that kind of victory can be very quickly unwound. Just consider today’s contentious headlines.
In the span of American history, it’s very evident that there are two different sets of political skills. The first set is the skill of getting elected and the second is the skillset that is involved in governing. Over more than 200 years of American history, there have been relatively few presidents who have excelled at both of those skillsets. But of course that first set of skills, the set that is involved in getting elected is most important, because if unelected one never actually serves as president. But once elected, Americans tend to find out rather quickly whether the President is able to govern.
When President Obama was inaugurated in 2009 he took office with Democrats, his own party, controlling both houses of Congress. Now of course they control neither. And also looking at the fact of an elected Republican president, you have to look at the larger math. Since 2009, over 1,000, indeed over 1,100 elected Democrats have lost their positions to Republicans. President Obama actually leaves office with his own party in the weakest position since at least the 1920s. Not only do Republicans now hold the presidency and both houses of Congress, but also about two thirds of all the state legislatures and also a clear majority of governorships. Last night as the president began his speech, CNN described him as,
“Popular, but politically humbled.”
His rise was spectacular, from 1997 to 2004, a State Senator from Illinois, and from 2005 to 2008, a United States Senator, and then of course from 2009 until 2017, President of the United States. He defeated John McCain in 2008 and then Mitt Romney in 2012. He ran very clearly to the left, including back in 2008 running to the left of Hillary Clinton. He was someone who was very clearly identified on social issues, especially, issues like abortion. Barack Obama was described then and is fairly described until Hillary Clinton as the most pro-abortion presidential candidate in American history. Some back in 2008 even described him as the most pro-abortion politician in America. As an Illinois State Senator he had vetoed a partial-birth abortion bill and as both President and as Senator he had been very aggressively for abortion under any conceivable circumstance. And of course on the social issues, they became a part even of the Affordable Care Act of ObamaCare, most infamously in what became described as the contraception mandate. One of the parts of the ObamaCare legislation required employers and all qualified plans to pay for an entire range of contraceptives that would also include those suspected of operating as abortifacients. The Obama administration resisted all calls for compromise, indeed any reasonable call for a compromise, and instead steadfastly held by its rule. This led to any number of challenges, one of those challenges coming from corporate America went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Obama Administration lost in the Hobby Lobby case. There is continuing court action having to do with the nonprofit sector, including religious institutions now forced to violate conscience in terms of this abortifacient and contraceptive mandate. And here of course, you have the specter of the Obama Administration now infamously facing down groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor.
On LGBT issues, President Obama was less leader than follower, but a very effective follower considering that he sits in the Oval Office. Back when he was an Illinois State Senator, President Obama filled out a form indicating that he was for the legalization of same-sex marriage. When he ran for President in 2008 he insisted that he was not for the legalization of same-sex unions, but rather was for some kind of approval of civil unions. Back in 2011, a very signal change became evident in the Obama Administration when the Justice Department under the President’s leadership stopped defending any federal law that might limit LGBT rights or same-sex marriage.
The President in that year described his own position on the LGBT spectrum as evolving, especially the position on same-sex marriage, and then as we now we know in 2012 while running for reelection the President came out and ardently supported the legalization of same-sex marriage. David Axelrod, a key figure in the Obama Administration explained the President really hated his own position in 2008, considering it not only a compromise, but himself compromised. But Obama did not believe that he could win the White House in 2008 as a supporter of same-sex marriage. All that changed in 2012 indicating a change in the larger understanding of American public opinion on the question. During the Obama Administration it was clear that the President and his team held to a very expansionist and activist understanding of the federal government. And on the social issues that was translated department by department, not only in the Justice Department, but also in the State Department where LGBT issues became a prior and very central issue of U.S. foreign policy.
Similarly, the Education Department at the end of the Obama Administration, there came the now-infamous Dear Colleague letter in which the Justice Department and the Education Department together advised the leaders of America’s schools all the way from elementary schools to colleges and universities that they must allow transgender persons to use the bathroom, locker room, and other changing facilities of their choice.
Even though in the Democratic Party, President Obama has no shortage of supporters in terms of his actions and understanding of foreign-policy, there is emerging a basically bipartisan critique, a critique coming from both the political left and the right, of President Obama’s foreign policy over eight years. President Obama was elected in 2008, at least in part because he was an ardent critic of President George W. Bush’s foreign-policy. Obama claimed that President Bush represented a reckless interventionism in nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but particularly in Iraq. But in the pullback of American power from Iraq as well as Afghanistan, but especially once again in Iraq, there was left a vacuum that eventually was filled with the rise of what is known as the Islamic State or ISIS.
In a speech given very early in his administration at the University of Cairo, President Obama announced that American foreign policy would be far less ambitious than it had been in the past and it was not only ISIS, or what would become ISIS, that was listening, it was also a good many others around the world, including Vladimir Putin and for that matter, the leaders of Iran and China.
There can be no question that Americans, or at least many Americans, had grown tired of America’s foreign interventionism by the time we came to the end of the second Bush administration. But what’s also clear is the danger of a President of the United States announcing a non-interventionism, because it’s really clear now that the world is listening and the world took President Obama at his word, so did the Nobel Peace Prize committee in awarding the almost newly inaugurated President of the United States the Nobel Peace Prize before he had done virtually anything except to say that he was going to reverse the kind of foreign-policy that America had represented for so many years before.
There can be no question that America’s posture in the world stage at the end of two terms of President Barack Obama is significantly weaker and minimized from what it was when President Obama was inaugurated. Just consider such controversies as the Iran deal and nuclear weapons. Just consider the rise of Russia as a newly resurgent power and consider how much land Russia has grabbed during the time that President Obama has been president. This has left many of America’s friends, including Ukraine and the Baltic republics, wondering if America would come to their aid as treaties require in the face of Russian aggression. At the end of his administration, President Obama violated trust with another key American ally, Israel, in a failure to veto a UN resolution against Israel, adding absolutely nothing to the chances of peace and seen publicly as a violation of trust with a key ally, also adding nothing therefore to America’s reputation around the world.
In terms of worldview, it’s very clear that President Obama represented something genuinely new in terms of modern America, and that was a secular more cosmopolitan worldview in the Oval Office. The secular part did not deny that President Obama was a member of a church, it did very much make clear that his basic worldview was based upon very secular premises. In terms of cosmopolitanism, President Obama is very representative of the cultural and intellectual elites, not only in the United States but also in Europe, in seeing themselves as members of a global community long before they are members or citizens of a particular nation. That has a great deal to do with one’s worldview.
Running for president in 2008, President Obama was known as No Drama Obama, and the style and temperature of his presidency was a calculated cool. This too was rather different than his predecessors, including his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton. President Obama saw himself and saw a proper government as being cool and analytical. Last night in Chicago he defined politics as “a battle of ideas based on facts.”
He was an ardent defender of scientism and what he saw as secular reason. Last night he simply declared,
“Science and reason matter.”
As if there is anyone arguing otherwise. But of course, what the President was signaling there is not just a belief that science and reason matter, but rather he was signaling a particular understanding of science and a particular understanding of reason. He was also making very clear his commitment when he spoke of politics as a battle of ideas based on facts. He was very clearly signaling that he and his administration hold the facts. But of course, one of the fundamental problems of the Obama years is that Americans were divided over the facts, and the President steadfastly held to his facts as if they were the only facts at stake. The polarization at the level of worldview and politics in this country is such that Americans increasingly hold two different understandings of facts, and it takes a very different worldview to define what kind of fact one factually recognizes.
When it comes to a president or anyone on the world historical stage, the verdict of history is actually very long in coming. President Bush spoke about this in his interview with Bob Woodward when he said that he really wasn’t worried about the verdict of history because by the time that was settled he would be dead. One of the reasons that it takes so much time for history to make its verdict is because that verdict is based on not only what came before a President, but what comes after. And that’s still an unfolding story.
This much is abundantly clear: President Barack Obama will go down in history as the first African-American President of the United States, and in that fact all Americans can take justifiable pride. Even those of us who disagreed with his politics found justifiable pride in the vision of an African-American man showing up all over the world as President of the United States. And furthermore, President Obama deserves massive credit for one often unrecognized fact. There was not one shred of personal moral scandal associated with this president during the entirety of his administration. Furthermore, President Obama and his wife Michelle held up a model of family, dare we say the natural family, that many other Americans could only admire and seek to emulate.
In the most emotional section of the speech last night, President Obama spoke of his indebtedness to the First Lady, Michelle, and also of his love and pride in their two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
In a very moving article published in The Guardian of London, Peniel Joseph wrote this,
“The Obamas leave the White House, if not the world stage, having accomplished, through sheer force of will, something entirely unprecedented in American history: humanizing the black experience by simply being themselves.”
“In the process they normalized black excellence, codified graceful resistance to white supremacy and illustrated the profundity of black romantic and familial love. And they looked great doing it. The Obamas will be missed by millions – but no one will miss them more than black Americans. We found in Obama a president who justified the faith of generations who persisted in loving America – even when the nation refused to love us back.”
Why the death penalty matters: Dylann Roof sentenced to death in Charleston AME Church massacre
But finally, a very different verdict was handed down yesterday by a federal jury in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof was found not only guilty some weeks ago of all 33 counts against him, but yesterday he was sentenced to death by that federal jury. In 2015 Dylann Roof entered the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people gathered for a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Roof intended to start a race war by making the assault, the murderous assault upon this historic black congregation in Charleston. Shortly after his arrest and when he had confessed to actually carrying out the massacre, Dylann Roof wrote in a jailhouse journal,
“I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
It’s impossible to get into the mind, much less the heart, of anyone who would plot, much less carry out, this kind of massacre. But it’s telling in terms of our quest, our innate demand for justice, that even as many Americans say they are unsure about the death penalty—that itself a part of the moral context of America today—it only took this federal jury three hours to find Dylann Roof guilty to the extent that the death penalty was the only rightful option.
A country’s system of justice is an ultimate reflection of its deepest convictions, of its governing philosophy, of its understanding of human nature, and of its commitment to justice. Ultimately, that system of justice as well as the sentences handed down for crimes becomes a very clear representation of the worldview communally held by a culture, a society, in this case, a nation. All this becomes very evident when a jury has to make the excruciating decision of the just punishment in a case like this. But it only took this federal jury three hours to understand what justice would require, and yesterday they handed that verdict down, and now we all know.