Fare Thee Well

If there is any doubt remaining that the slogan “change” had no content when it was proffered as a reason for electing a President, consider this: Barack Obama bid farewell to the nation without calibrating his calls for change to his assertions of having already achieved it.

President Obama’s farewell last night—delivered not in the traditional sedateness of the Oval Office but rather at the site and in the manner of a campaign rally—thus served as a primer on the shift from the liberal politics of amelioration to the Progressive politics of historical teleology.

It should be said that despite the setting, he delivered the speech as he has conducted himself in office: with grace and class, perhaps not the highest bars, but ones whose importance we may come to appreciate with renewed urgency.

But clocking in at more than 4,000 words and 50 minutes, interrupted by adoring throngs who cheered robustly enough for the troops but wildly when Obama checked the boxes of various identity groups, it was hard to match the scene with the moment.

Yet the scene served its own purpose. It was surely not that the famously Vulcan Obama needs the adoration of crowds. It was, rather, to illustrate the Progressivism at the core of his thought:

Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it. . . . It’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea—our bold experiment in self-government. It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This is, in a sense, the Hallmark version of Lincoln’s apple-of-gold metaphor: a watery understanding of the Declaration whereby the entire political machinery is led from behind rather than the popular will being refined and enlarged.

But it still does not answer: Change to what, and for what? The answer is, of course, change for Progress, and therefore change always. “So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.”

Here are the roots of a deep dispute between Progressivism—the assumption that history is unfolding forward—and conservatism, which holds that custom merits conservation. Edmund Burke said he would never exclude change, “but even when I changed, it should be to preserve.”

Note that in the latter case, change is not in itself a value. It is anchored in something substantive. In Progressivism, it is too. The problem is that the something—the future—is an open and undefined frontier. Often, the populist, power-to-the-people appeals notwithstanding, it is the province of experts.

There was some of that in Obama’s farewell. While he was certainly right to warn of the erosion of common standards of factual discourse, a trend in which neither party is innocent, he assumes most problems can be technocratically solved:

Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.

This is hard to quarrel with as far as it goes. The question is how far it goes. Some people are unreasonable and irrational in politics, but the great weapon of Progressivism has always been to stigmatize as unreasonable and irrational whoever was opposed to whatever is deemed to be Progress. Whatever happened to prudence—to the assumption that many political questions, and perhaps most of the important ones, lay in a murky realm of judgment somewhere beyond obvious rights and clear wrongs?

Significantly, then, the President proceeded to characterize this deference to reason as “born of the Enlightenment.” The idea that reason, at which the Greeks had a pretty good go, is born of the Enlightenment is an attitude born of Progressivism. Because, after all, what else has it produced but Progress?  It gave us, Obama said, airplanes and iPhones.

The President’s closing call for participation to induce further change trapped him in his own suppositions.

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—with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

Set aside the ironies—the President has had a habit of not enforcing certain laws, for example—as well the underlying assumption that America is a “long journey” forward rather than an inheritance to be preserved. What is striking is that he seemed all but oblivious to the fact that nearly half the country had in fact just taken him up on this invitation to participate and delivered a stunning jolt to the electoral system by choosing to succeed him a man Obama had described as unfit for the office. Perhaps Obama’s predecessor James Madison had the better idea with that “refining and enlarging” business.

Such is the ultimate moral condescension of the Progressive ethos. When Obama says the coming generation—which, speaking of Progress, will apparently be the first in the history of the species to be, as a group, “unselfish” and “altruistic”—“know[s] that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace,” he is not trying to reassure them about the change induced by the President-elect’s supporters.  Their change is not real change.  It is regress, not Progress.

The lessons that might have been learned from all this are that Progress is not an inherent value. Change is not an inherent good. Instead, the sense conveyed, against all the President’s intentions, is that when real Americans participate, Progress will ensue. In that sense, among others—the messianic politics, the farewell as rally, the discounting of those who are not real Americans—this much must be said: The farewell address was another step in a smooth transition to his successor.

Greg Weiner

Greg Weiner is a contributing editor of Law and Liberty.

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  1. libertarian jerry says

    If truth be told,President Obama and most of his predecessors,have been nothing but puppets for the real powers in America ensconced in the “Deep State” and the elitist “real owners of America.” With that said,if one looks objectively at the American landscape all of the Progressive(socialist) goals laid down years ago and acted upon over the last Century have been written into concrete American Law,despite the Constitution. Basically a Communist Manifesto of ideas including the Income Tax,Inheritance Tax,Central Banking with fiat currency,Public Education,control of land and resources,regulatory defacto control of the economy etc.etc. Barack Obama is nothing but a continuation,if at a faster pace,of the collectivization of America’s institutions and a retreat from the original republican,limited government society as envisioned by the founding fathers and written into law with the original Constitution. The real fear of the Progressives is that a Trump Presidency may slow down or even alter the American march towards collectivization. It would be a tremendous setback for the Progressives who think that they and they alone know better what is good for Americans.

  2. gabe says

    “The farewell address was another step in a smooth transition to his successor.”

    Really? His actions belie his words as he has set one trap / obstacle after another for The Trumpster.

    And no, Greg, I have never found him to be particularly gracious. consider all of his comments denigrating his opponents both before and after his election(s). Speaking softly does not betoken grace, a trait many of us have perceived to be absent from this rabble rousing community organizer.

    If only, he would simply shut up after leaving office.
    BUT, that is not the way of DEMOCRAT ex-Presidents, now is it? He will, as did his Democrat predecessors, continue to stroke his own ego, denigrating the efforts of the next President as he seeks to buttress his much vaunted “legacy.”

    GOOD RIDDANCE!

    • gabe says

      And here is an example of that *graciousness* of which Weiner speaks:

      (From todays American Spectator)

      The implicit treatment of Trump in the speech was passive-aggressive, at once conceding his points and caricaturing them. At one moment, Obama was acknowledging the need for “fair trade”; in the next, he was dismissing it as irrelevant. He worked in a few references to the white working class but quickly followed them up with a demagogic spin on Trumpism: “After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.”

      Oh, Amazing Grace, indeed!

  3. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Smile an everlasting smile
    A smile can bring you near to me
    Don’t ever let me find you down
    ‘Cause that would bring a tear to me

    This world has lost its glory
    Let’s start a brand new story now, my love
    Right now, there’ll be no other time
    And I can show you how, my love

    Talk in everlasting words

    And dedicate them all to me
    And I will give you all my life
    I’m here if you should call to me

    You think that I don’t even mean
    A single word I say
    It’s only words and words are all I have
    To take your heart away

  4. says

    The words of our now-defunct President are all he has to “take away” anything from his period In office. Some appreciation is due Professor Weiner for his endurance as an auditor.

    He heard: “Politics is a battle of ideas; . . .” From one of those many for whom the career of politics has been (and is) the creation and preservation of perceptions.

    But of more interest is a correct understanding of Professor Weiner’s own text:

    “Note that in the latter case [Burke’s view], change is not in itself a value. *It* is anchored in something substantive. In Progressivism, *it* is too. The problem is that *the something*—***the future***—is an open and undefined frontier. Often, the populist, power-to-the-people appeals notwithstanding, *it* is the province of experts.”

    Are we being told that “the future,” that “something substantive,” is the “province of experts” or that “change” as the “it” is the province of experts; or, as might be suspected, that **in Progressivism** change and the future are “the province of the experts?”

  5. Devin Watkins says

    I agree that changes is not an inherent good, and it is important to ask what we are progressing towards. But shouldn’t we all be trying to move towards a better society? I’m not talking about a technocratic solution in which we blindly trust the “experts” to tell us which way is better. I mean each of us, examine ourselves, our country, our history and advocate to improve the lives of all Americans.

    The problem with what Obama has done (including this this speech) is to try and “check the boxes of various identity groups” rather than govern for all Americans. Instead he should have been consistently pushing for the fundamental values of American civilization: freedom and liberty. This is for everyone, including the freedom for LGBT people to marry as they choose and religious liberty to allow people to disagree with their choice. Instead, too often Obama’s administration thought they knew best how people should live their own lives. From the kind of light bulbs we have in our house, to the kind of healthcare we buy, we were all told that Washington DC knows best. They do not, and they shouldn’t even claim to. Change itself isn’t good, but change towards freedom and liberty is what is good. Sadly that was lacking from the Obama administration.

  6. says

    To confirm your observation that “change” has no meaningful content, we need to look no further than Obama’s own words: “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.” Isn’t that what the voters did this November?

  7. djf says

    Here are some more rock lyrics that seem appropriate to the occasion of Obama’s leaving office:

    I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
    And just for that one moment I could be you
    Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
    You’d know what a drag it is to see you

  8. gabe says

    And for two more:
    From todays PowerLine:

    Dealing in our own way with Obama’s long goodbye, John and I have drawn on the twisted catalog of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks to ask: “HOW CAN I MISS YOU WHEN YOU WON’T GO AWAY?” We won’t miss President Obama if he ever goes away, but the point remains.

    Professor Jean Yarbrough is Gary M. Pendy, Sr., Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College. She is also the author of the APSA award-winning book Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. When it comes to quotes expressing the sentiment, she thinks we can do better.

    She implores us to use the line from MacBeth, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite Shakespeare play. The line is Lady MacBeth’s:

    “Stand not upon the order of your going, But GO AT ONCE.”

    And you can rinse and repeat as necessary.

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