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The Comforting Fictions Of Obama’s Farewell Speech


Watching Barack Obama’s speech at the 2008 DNC in Denver, I doubt I could have imagined the kind of turmoil his presidency would incite. Almost everything has changed in the subsequent years, and yet his farewell speech to the nation was brimming with the same kind of haughty lecturing we got back then.

Obama loves to conflate progressivism with patriotism, pitting the forces of decency and empathy — his own — against the self-serving profiteers and meddling reactionaries who stand in the way. All of it is swathed in phony optimism.

The president’s central case for government’s existence rests on the notion of the state being society’s moral center, engine of prosperity, and arbiter of fairness. This has never been normal. Obama speaks of government as a theocrat might of church—and his fans return the favor by treating him like a pope. This was true in 2008. And it’s true now. Just check out liberal Twitterdom.

There was much to process, and many policy claims to debunk, but for me the most grating aspect of the address were the broader fictions Obama likes to repeat.

“When Congress is dysfunctional,” Obama explained, “we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.” For the president, a “dysfunctional” Congress means a Congress unwilling to pass progressive legislation. That is not the definition of dysfunctional, I’m afraid. Nor is it the definition of extreme.

There is nothing in the Constitution instructing legislators to acquiesce to the president. In the near future, the GOP Congress will be passing tons of legislation, and I can assure you neither Obama, nor his many fans in the media, will be celebrating the fact that Congress is finally “getting stuff done” or “doing its job.” Progress will no longer be measured in the number of bills signed.

Nor should it be. After all, if voters were displeased with the way legislators treated Obama’s agenda, they had the ability to replace these obstinate lawmakers with more cooperative ones. They did not. That’s because gridlock was created by a party that fooled itself into believing it could rule unilaterally. Also, after Democrats passed their massive health-care reform law — and I’m certain there were other reasons, as well — Republicans kept expanding their majorities, and not only in Congress.

Americans voted for equilibrium in DC. Congress was working exactly as it was intended. And it has nothing to do with gerrymandering or voter suppression or fake news or any of the other excuses liberals keep concocting to explain their troubles.

Moreover, the idea that Congress is catering to some “rigid extreme” because elected officials oppose policies that were passed in 2010 might be the prevailing opinion on the Left, but it has no basis in reality. Republican positions, like them or not, are well within the boundaries of normal American attitudes.

That brings me to this nugget. In his farewell address, Obama warned that “our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted” (because we don’t talk about politics enough, apparently!) and urged Americans to help rebuild “our democratic institutions.”

Our democracy isn’t in trouble. We just had an election, in which every citizen permitted to vote, and motivated, could do so. Our Electoral College, part of a broader system that most fairly embodies the will of voters in the nation’s 50 states, also worked exactly as intended.

Maybe Obama means we must rebuild our belief in separation of powers, because his administration displayed far more creativity in executive power than it ever did in attempting to build coalitions to pass legislation. Obama regularly ignored “norms” of governance, consistently losing cases before the Supreme Court, entering into international agreements without the Senate, creating immigration policy for millions without Congress, and using the administrative state to legislate environmental policies that couldn’t even pass when Democrats controlled both houses. Those abuses were not normal.

Nor is it normal to wish away the bad things that happened under your watch.

It’s one thing to make claims about how wonderful the recovery has been or how Obama stopped Iran’s nuclear program. Neither are true. But last night, Obama again made the extraordinary claim there has been no successful Islamic terrorism — or whatever euphemism we’re using these days — on the home front. “No foreign terrorist organization,” the president bragged yesterday, “has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland in the last eight years.”

Now, if you don’t count the attack in San Bernardino, where a ISIS-inspired couple murdered 14 people and wounded another 22; or the ISIS-inspired terrorist attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were murdered and 53 wounded; and if you forget the Fort Hood shooting in Texas, where an Islamist U.S. Army officer murdered 13 people and wounded 32; and you skip the Boston Marathon bombings where Islamists murdered three and wounded another 264; then, perhaps, the president’s claim might have some veracity.

Otherwise, the idea is preposterous no matter how meticulously Obama constructs his sentences. This isn’t exactly as blatant a falsehood as our incoming president likes to drop on occasion, but it’s no less misleading. No, there isn’t a central planning committee meeting where violent foreign terrorist organizations hatch a specific plan to attack America. Yet, somehow, the adherents of violent theology know exactly what they need to do without checking in for instructions. Obama spent eight years refusing to acknowledge this reality — and many others.

Last night, he offered Americans a revisionist history of his entire presidency, casting himself as a resilient truth teller and champion of “democracy.” The reality is quite different.