Two Farewell Addresses: Barack Obama and George Washington
President Obama quoted Washington's famous address — but their ideas differ vastly.
There was a clever twist in Obama’s farewell address. He keyed off George Washington’s farewell address from 1796, quoting from it and also mentioning the Constitution several times (a key topic in Washington’s farewell). The allusions were present, but the similarity stops there. Here’s why.
The Quote from Washington’s Farewell
Here are Obama’s words:
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken… to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”
And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest” or to enfeeble the “sacred ties” that make us one.
So far, so good. The president addressed the danger of disunity, which Washington had also feared. Here is the direction Obama went with that:
We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. … We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others … When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them …
Obama used Washington’s “anxious” and “jealous” sentiments about divisiveness and alienation in the country to lament strong political dialogue and criticism of the political establishment, including (we might add) even its possible corruption. He obviously feels bruised — as do the Clintons.
While Obama bemoaned citizens and organizations that were critical, Washington warned of a political leadership that could lack good character (wisdom and virtue). The difference is stark.
But what was the context of George Washington’s original words? He was speaking of the dangers of disunited government, and of not maintaining the work of the “sacred” Constitution.
That heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue.
Obama bemoaned citizens and organizations that were critical of the current political establishment. Washington warned of a political leadership that could lack good character (wisdom and virtue). The difference is stark.
The Importance of the Constitution
President Obama and his speechwriters obviously took strong cues from the emphasis on the Constitution that Washington had woven throughout his address. Obama tipped his hat to it and also to America’s Founders. But then he said something disturbing:
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.
“Just a piece of parchment” is quite a departure from Washington’s concept of the Constitution as sacred. Obama obviously tilts toward the modern concept of a “living” constitution, re-interpreted at will through judicial activism.
George Washington continued:
The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
Washington warns of what would happen to the republic if it did not hold firmly to this:
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.
He is very clear. The “sacred” constitution is to be “obeyed” until changed by “an explicit and authentic act of the whole people” (i.e., the amendment process). To fail in this could be “fatal.”
Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. … It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.
This flies directly in the face of much of the lawlessness we have seen in Washington D.C. and in our climate of judicial activism.
Washington was also prescient concerning Obama’s “piece of parchment” statement, when he warned that the Constitution could become “little else than a name” producing a “feeble” government, if citizens were not vigilant.
The Importance of Checks and Balances and Branches of Government
Washington then moved on to the details. To guard against what he calls “a real despotism,” it is critical, he said, that one branch of government not “encroach” on another. Separation of powers is vital.
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.
It amazes me that Obama’s speechwriting team did not pick up on this because many Democrats, soon to be the opposition party, seem to have rediscovered the genius of checks and balances. The Constitution is suddenly in vogue on the Left. But the only branch Obama mentions being checked in this way is Congress, with this statement: “When Congress is dysfunctional…”
Perhaps he is still sensitive to the resistance he received from the congresses of 2011, 2013 and 2015, when many members felt he was doing just what Washington warned against: “consolidat[ing] the powers of all departments in one.”
The Danger of Partisanism
Washington deplored the idea of parties and warned strongly against partisanship:
They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
Note the chilling effect of his words, “The will of a party” and “make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction.” They describe quite well what the present party occupying the White House has done.
Even in his farewell, Obama used the “mirror” as he always has, to imply that those who do not see it the way Progressives see it are blind. Or living in “bubbles.” From Obama’s speech:
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.
This astounded me. The “bubbles” he has in mind are not the coastal elite bubbles the press talked about after the election (after much soul searching), but rather the subdivisions, churches, schools and small discussion groups on social media which might not agree with the consensus of the (enterprising minority?) faction possessing the so-called correct answers.
Lurking in the shadows of all his comments is the specter of the regular folks of middle America who rejected the Democratic agenda in 2016.
Obama goes on to state that the nation needs a “common baseline of facts.” He implies politically correct positions on climate change, refugees, money in politics, etc. and — de rigueur — the nature of true “equality.”
To enable this mass consensus Obama proposes a vast army of volunteers and “organizers.”
He finishes his substantive remarks at that point. But Washington was just getting warmed up, in the portions I’ve quoted from here. He went on to talk about the importance of religion and virtue in America — which he called the “pillars and props” of the nation — the fundamentals of success. He warned vigorously against the dangers of national debt and entangling foreign alliances. It was the full treatment.
For generations American students memorized portions of Washington’s Farewell Address and wrote essays on it. I had to memorize significant parts when I was in school.
How much better for America would it be had the present White House staff done that. Simply using it as a cultural cue does not make the cut.