Over the course of his eight-year term, discussion surrounding President Barack Obama’s speech-making skills has always touched on one recurrent point: The man knows how to inspire. His speeches are legendary both for their content and craft, with nearly everyone in agreement over his extraordinary oratory capabilities.
So heading into the president’s farewell address Tuesday evening, a disheartened nation looked once more for that motivation, that inspiration, that secret power only the best speeches contain — the ones usually given by fictional TV presidents, and rarely matched by their real-life counterparts.
Only this time, the bar that needed to be met seemed too high. Not only has fear caked the nation since election day, but mere hours before President Obama took the stage at McCormick Place in Chicago, a story broke about his successor that perfectly encapsulated Democrats’ anxiety over the next four years. Summed up with the hashtag “#GoldenShowers,” America collectively groaned; even this last night with Obama behind the podium couldn’t escape the President-Elect’s encroaching shadow.
How does a great speaker overcome something like this? With the same word that got him here: hope.
Humbly weaving a long list of his accomplishments from the past eight years into guidance for tackling the next four, President Obama covered a wide range of topics that never stopped pushing for hope. After starting with a joke to politely calm the wild Chicago crowd, the president went back to the founding fathers for direction in the present.
“That’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional,” President Obama said. “Not that we were perfect from the start, but that we’ve shown the willingness to change.”
Change. His point was clear: If we could change then, we can change now. If we did it once, we can do it again. “Work for democracy has always been hard,” he continued, noting how progress can feel like “two steps forward and one step back.” But it’s marked, always, by “forward motion.”
“If I had told you eight years ago…” he began, before listing a string of accomplishments that include reversing the great recession, rebooting the auto industry, starting a lengthy streak of job growth, taking out the mastermind of 9/11, and establishing marriage equality (which got the loudest cheer of the lot). The president continued, “If I had told you that eight years ago […] you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did.”
Hope: the word hid behind every point, but he actually saved it for the big finish.
Throughout the rest of his nearly hour-long address, President Obama called for “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” and later name-checked President-Elect Trump (which many did not expect him to do) in reference to the same need for a smooth transition. He cited the ongoing issues with race relations, but noted the same hateful stereotypes assigned to minorities today were once assigned to the Irish and Italian immigrants who now make up the foundation of this country.
In another well-utilized speaking technique, President Obama noted the need to recognize climate change and respect our military, but only spoke of his accomplishments as they related to the future. “No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our soil these past eight years,” he said, before clarifying everyone’s need to be diligent. “Protecting our way of life isn’t just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear.”
And this came just 30 minutes into the speech. When he said “my final point,” the audience groaned, perhaps thinking the best was behind them. Instead, our president only dug deeper. His build up was about to be rewarded with a direct call to action, and his graceful execution was key to its impact. President Obama used repetition of key phrases to create his own rhythm, varied his style from the grandiose (“We all share the same title, the most important office in the democracy: citizen.”) to the familiar (“If something needs fixin’, lace up your shoes and do some organizing”), and saved his most emotionally arresting thank yous — that brought tears to his eyes, and ours — for the very end.
The image of him on the podium will never dissipate; how comfortable he is with silence; with beats; his consciously shifting emphasis; his transitions. These are all qualities our President-Elect lacks, and we will all suffer because of it. Communication is instrumental to leadership. It bridges gaps between people. That’s what Obama did in his eight years, and it’s what he did in his final speech. Tonight, he made us forget our anger and believe, once more, in hope.
Now, it’s up to us to hold onto that hope. He did, over eight long years, and yes, we can, too.
Watch President Obama’s farewell address below.