In a 51-minute farewell address from Chicago’s McCormick Place, US president Barack Obama on Jan. 10 thanked his family, called for an end to filter bubbles, and issued a plea for Americans to embrace their citizenship. Vice president Joe Biden also gave a perfectly Joe Biden salute.
Although delivered in front of a lively and massive audience, Obama’s farewell address didn’t have the sweeping oratorical impact of some of his past speeches. It wasn’t a rallying cry for liberals or newly galvanized activists, so much as a basic explainer on American democracy.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity,” Obama said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity—the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
Obama used the word ”democracy” 20 times in his speech, far more than George W. Bush in his farewell (three times) or Bill Clinton in his (zero times). In fact, you’d have to stack up final speeches going all the way back to Woodrow Wilson to match Obama’s “democracy” mentions. (“The United States is of necessity the sample democracy of the world,” Wilson said in his 1920 state of the union, a “democracy”-laden affair and the last of his speeches to both houses of Congress. “The triumph of democracy depends upon its success.”)
Mentions of democracy in US presidents’ final speeches
Note: Richard Nixon, JFK, FDR, and Warren Harding’s final speeches were not farewell addresses. George H.W. Bush’s speech at West Point is widely considered his farewell address, but was not technically billed as such.
Why Obama did it
Less than two weeks shy of successor Donald Trump’s inauguration, Obama using his final public address for a fastidious defense of American values may not have satisfied people looking for a no-holds-barred Barack. But it doesn’t feel like an accident either.
Repetition is basic—it’s how we teach kids to read, dogs to sit, and Bart Simpson that goldfish don’t bounce. When Obama name-drops democracy 20 times in 50 minutes, he really doesn’t want us to forget its meaning.