Barack Obama has been known to make a good speech when circumstances call upon him to do so. Last night, one would think, he would again follow through and deliver his farewell to the nation in the way to which we have become accustomed over the last eight years.
The future may change our interpretation of his speech, as it often does with many moments of magnitude, but for the time being I am left with the feeling that it fell flat.
Granted, the president deserves credit for making a few middle-of-the-road remarks with which many on the other side of the political spectrum would agree. But not only are they a day late and a dollar short, they were presented in an ill-fitting environment, and one which did his message no favors.
Obama spoke at the venue where he had given his victory speech on Election Night 2012, thus choosing to, once again, bask in a sea of approval and validation - not the proper context for a farewell speech to the nation.
The massive convention center was packed to the brim with adoring, quasi-obsessive lapdogs who were not shy in eluding bitterness regarding Obama's successor as well as an audible reluctance to ideologically moderate concepts which Obama himself has traditionally been shy in expressing.
The crowd booed the mention of the coming peaceful transition of power, one of our democracy’s treasured attributes. They gave a tepid, scattered applause when Obama likened the hardships of minority youths to others like the middle-aged white man who “may not look like it on the outside,” but inside, in his own environment, is struggling too. And one could surely say that the president's remark that college campuses can become echo chambers that lead to intellectually rigid thinking was unwanted – or unexpected, at least - by many.
The Chicago community has done him many favors, but not this time. Obama's adopted hometown audience tarnished the effect of his speech in a way that was hard to ignore, and the president should have recognized this beforehand as a potential liability. The event was neither a campaign stop nor a victory speech, but by notable metrics it was orchestrated like one.
This, in part, is why Obama missed the mark last night. Had we seen him behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office (or somewhere else in the White House), I believe he could have been more effective for this particular moment. In fact, looking back at some notable farewell addresses, we can see what outgoing presidents achieved but which Obama didn’t.
Obama did not match the statesmanlike wisdom and warnings of Eisenhower in 1961.
Obama, despite the tears, did not lay bare a deep, personal openness and frankness that presidents are often resigned to show, but which Nixon gracefully did in 1974.
Obama made a decent reference to the fragmentation of interests and information during socially disjointed times like Carter did in 1981, but it is yet to be determined if he outlined a path for his post-presidential ambitions with the same conviction.
Obama did not make us feel as good as Reagan did in 1989 - few could or ever will.
All this would have been forgivable had Obama struck out on his own and did what he does best. But at the moment, at least, it does not appear that he did. We are left wondering why his tank was empty, at what point it had run out, and what caused it…