Since 2015, if not since 2010, Americans have focused far too much time and attention on a “top-down approach” to politics, magnifying the importance of the presidency in a governmental system in which it holds only one-third of federal power (Congress and federal courts occupy the other two thirds), not to mention the power of states and localities.
This was disappointing, because after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory due in large part to grassroots and online organizing, a wave of optimism and over-confidence swept his supporters, a belief that they had learned the lesson that “the power of the people is much stronger than the people in power.” But in 2010, they dropped the ball, and Tea Party Republicans swept the congressional elections.
In his 2017 farewell address, President Obama urged his supporters to reclaim the “bottom up” power they believed they had when they worked so hard for his election in 2008 and re-election in 2012. Obama Farewell Address Video and Text, essential viewing and reading for anyone interested in American politics.
Obama in his Farewell Address reminded his supporters that the presidency is a top-down institution that mostly draws its power from the bottom up. The collective “we” is more powerful than one (deluded) individual at the top. Our democracy, freedoms and rights may be challenged over the next four years, but if we fight back that is better for us than depending always on wise and benevolent leadership at the top.
One of the biggest disappointments of the “Obama movement” is that his supporters abandoned their activism in the mid-term elections of 2010 and 2014, allowing a minority of Republicans to take back Congress and obstruct the Obama agenda. Obama supporters (along with their Hillary Clinton compatriots) did not listen carefully and closely enough to the concerns of those voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, or in North Carolina, which supported Obama in 2008 but not 2012, and who made the seemingly unfathomable decision to support Donald Trump in 2016. Winning elections is often more about listening to voters and validating their feelings or experiences than simply talking at them and giving them a 10-point plan for how you’re going to improve their lives.
Obama leaves office with job approval ratings of between 55% and 60%. And yet his chosen successor could only garner 48% of the vote, meaning that between 6% and 12% of Obama supporters couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton, though she pledged to continue his platform and enhance his legacy.
I was thinking how much more inspiring Obama’s farewell address was from his predecessors, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, largely because he gave it before a huge audience in Chicago, emphasizing that he was simply the conduit or symbolic leader of a movement rather than a president at the top speaking down to “the people” at the bottom or out there in TV-land.
The substance of Obama’s address warned of four major threats to democracy. The first is stark economic inequality. The second is racial tension and prejudice, along with anti-immigrant attitudes. One FB friend charged that was all he talked about, but actually he did not mention it until about one-third through the speech.
The third threat to our democracy is that “we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”
He tied that to potential loss of faith in practical problem-solving, “a faith in reason and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might”; a belief in “principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press.”
That order is now being challenged. First by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam. More recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets in open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.
The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. They represent 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 the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right…
Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.
The fourth and final threat to our democracy is when it is taken for granted.
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.
Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
He concluded by reminding his audience of their own power.
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
“Yes, we can. (APPLAUSE)
“Yes, we did. (APPLAUSE)
“Yes, we can.” — Barack Obama, Farewell Address, 2017.