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A Speech Everyone Should Read

Feb. 16, 2017

By Lee H. Hamilton
    As a country, we make a habit of looking forward, not backward. But I’m going to ask you to turn your attention back a few weeks, to Barack Obama’s January 10 farewell address to the American people.

    I’ve been reading presidential farewell speeches for many years. Most of them give good advice. This speech, however, was exceptional.

    Why? To begin with, it is filled with confidence in ordinary people and respect for what workaday Americans can accomplish. This is a founding value of our country — both a promise and a call to civic arms. “Show up, dive in, stay at it,” Mr. Obama says. “And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed.”

    At the same time, he makes it clear that it’s challenging to make representative democracy work. As a nation, he argues, we have enormous potential — but we cannot take our success for granted. Indeed, our democracy is being tested right now by a disintegrating sense of common ground among Americans of different racial, ethnic, and class background, and by the growing ease with which people can retreat into “bubbles” — both geographic and ideological — in which we see only people we identify with and hear only information that fits our preconceived notions.

    This makes the underpinnings of a successful representative democracy — the search for common ground, the willingness to negotiate, the freedom to compromise — difficult if not impossible to pursue.

    Yet what may be most striking about the farewell address is its optimism that we can overcome division and temporary steps backward. As you read this speech, it’s hard to avoid a sense of the basic strength of our country. There’s a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power, a straightforward discussion of race and ways to surmount the burdens that racial discord have imposed on our society, a magnanimity toward ideological adversaries, an underlying sense of inclusiveness and decency. These are wise words from a mature politician who clearly has confidence in the nation’s ability to forge ahead and meet its challenges.

    I understand that a lot of people in this country don’t agree with former President Obama on many things. But set aside the person who wrote it for a moment: this speech is instructive for all of us on what this country is all about and how we can make it better.

    Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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