America’s focus on Tuesday night wavered between the sublime and the sordid, between lofty rhetoric and saucy sex tales, between an effort to defend democracy and another to undermine it, between U.S. President Obama’s carefully written farewell speech to Donald Trump’s short tweet denying reports of the embarrassing and possibly incriminating information with which Russia can blackmail him. Nine days before the inauguration, it’s hard to think of a change more drastic, in both style and substance.
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As was often the case in the election campaign, Trump stole the limelight, though in this case he probably would have preferred to stay in the shadows for once. The secret report of a former MI6 agent, of which Trump was apprised in his meeting with intelligence chiefs on Friday, contains uncorroborated accounts of twisted debauchery in Moscow hotel rooms, questionable debts to sinister Russians tied to the Kremlin and suspicious coordination between Trump’s staff and Russian interveners in the presidential elections. All of these can explain Trump’s persistent and inexplicable kowtowing to Vladimir Putin and, true or not, delegitimize his presidency before it even began. Obama, who managed to finish eight years in the White House without any stain of personal scandal, will soon be replaced by a president whose name is controversy and whose game is constant sensation.
This stark contrast between the outgoing and the incoming presidents - which, barring any dramatic upheavals, will take place in next Friday’s inauguration - were the leitmotif of Obama’s bittersweet address in Chicago. His speech juxtaposed hope and apprehension, pride and fear, confidence in the resilience of American democracy alongside an anxious plea to ordinary Americans to enlist for the cause so that it won’t be lost. Obama recounted his achievements, as usual, but besides the tear that he shed while praising his wife Michelle, the speech will mainly be remembered for the stark warning that Obama issued about the dangers facing American democracy, which often sounded like an accurate diagnosis of what has been occurring in Israel in recent years.
After decrying extremists who speak in the name of Islam and foreign authoritarians - guess who? - who view freedom as a threat to their power, Obama expounded on the dangers from within. “It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.”
Obama’s warning, which sounded like a daily news report in Israel, was issued a few hours after his interview with Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan was aired. Although he did not mention Israel or Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech, Obama’s words accurately depict the White House view of the dangerous processes eroding Israeli democracy. Obama was more outspoken about his recent altercation with Netanyahu over settlements and Security Council Resolution 2334. He said that the settlement drive under Netanyahu belied the prime minister’s supposed support for the two-state solution. You had a friend in the White House for the past eight years, Obama declared, dampening the enthusiasm expressed by Netanyahu and other Israelis at the impending changing of the guard in Washington: it’s not clear whether Netanyahu will be able to sleep soundly at night after January 20th, Obama said. In the wake of the new reports on Trump and Russia, it’s not clear how many Americans will be able to sleep soundly either.
Obama mentioned Trump only once in his speech, repeating his pledge to carry out an orderly transition. But his warnings against Trump’s essence and the baggage he is bringing to the White House were the backdrop to the thrust of his speech. He railed against expanding the gap between rich and poor, deepening the racial divide, rejecting immigrants, discriminating against Muslims or rolling back recent gains by the LGBTQ community. He blasted coarse and corrosive political dialogue that stokes strife and distances good people from politics. And in a call that is just as pertinent for indifferent Israeli leftists, Obama said that only personal commitment and involvement could safeguard democracy and advance progressive ideals.
It was a worthy finale to a long line of remarkable speeches that Obama has delivered, from his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention through his victory address at Grant Park in Chicago four years later to the series of impressive addresses he gave during his presidency, mostly in times of disaster and distress. It will be a long time before we will hear such inspirational oratory from a sitting president; in the next few years America and the world will have to make do with the angry tweets of a president who is bored by written speeches and can only get his audience excited when he is savaging one of his rivals.
Obama would have given a completely different speech, of course, if Hillary Clinton had won the elections, or, in fact, if any other mainstream Republican had been elected president rather than the stormy and unpredictable Trump. Obama isn’t only worried about his own legacy; he is concerned by the vulnerabilities and pitfalls of American democracy as a whole. He made clear on Tuesday that he will continue to speak out “as a citizen” after leaving the White House. Given the explosive nature of the new allegations against Trump and their expected reverberations over the next few weeks, Obama may find himself addressing the public again much sooner than he expected. It’s a small consolation prize for his despondent fans: it promises that his superb speech on Tuesday won’t be his last.