President Obama’s final public words to the American people and the world at his final press conference in the White House yesterday was a visionary clarion call to empower as happy warriors those who will carry on the fight for the progressive values he’s stood for and that will be so badly battered by the incoming administration and their Republican counterparts in Congress.
Rather than a dark stormy cloud of moody pessimism or anger, Obama gifted such warriors with invigorating, crisp and sparkling daylight, a hopeful rainbow included, to restore their spirits, pick up and not compromise their core values, and look to the promises of new generations who will soon be joining the ranks of activists and becoming voters.
The press conference was quintessential Obama, speaking beyond the press corps crammed into the press room, beyond the TV cameras, to the ranks of many still crestfallen activists and swelling numbers of frightened average citizens who are dreading the incoming Trump administration, and beyond them to the growing ranks of the younger so-called millennials and the even younger teenage follow-on population whose values are even more progressive than their millennial older brothers and sisters.
His message was to not compromise on core values opposing systematic discrimination, opposing obstacles to the right to vote, opposing the Jim Crow legacy of gerrymandering, opposing the idea of rounding up certain classes of persons and sending them somewhere else, opposing the suppression of those who dissent, opposing the suppression of a free press.
The younger generation coming of age now, he said, is “smarter, more tolerant and more inclusive by very instinct,” and “more apt to think about people as people, to put themselves in others’ shoes, to treat everybody with basic human respect, and to teach resilience and hope.”
Concluding with comments about his own daughters, the president surprised some when he said by being steeped in the process as they have been for eight years, and even in the face of defeat, “They can’t help but be patriotic.”
“They don’t boast or get cynical. They know it is a big, complicated country and that democracy is messy,” he said. “But there are a lot more good people than bad and there is a core decency in this country.”
He added, “I believe in this country and in the American people…There is evil in the world, but at the end of the day, if we work hard the world gets better.”
“We’re going to be OK,” he concluded. “Fight for it, work for it, and do not take it for granted.”
Implicit in the president’s remarks, in his farewell speech days earlier, and in his demeanor is a posture toward his life and his work that has matured over time, but represents a sharp departure from the decades of cynical pragmatism that has taken over much of American culture.
It is more than “hope” as a slogan, as it was for him in 2008 when he first ran. It now radiates from his substantial person. As such, it embodies a conviction that runs far deeper than any campaign poster could embody.
That’s what has been conveyed even as the toughest battles against the ridiculously unqualified and dangerous Trump cabinet picks are engaged in congressional hearings this week.
The Republicans and Trump can be counted on to expose their shallow bigotry and incompetence in the coming days and weeks in ways that will not only terrorize average Americans but will spur them into action.
Those with progressive values standing against these Republicans who’ve failed to heed the warning, “Watch out what you wish for,” will have very fertile political ground to advance their causes in the next period. Very fertile ground, indeed.
The only caution should be to avoid the temptation to compromise the progressive message while welcoming the swelling ranks of the newly converted.
Indeed, instead of the old politics of pandering to selfish self-interest, the new politics should be grounded in a solid moral standard, to act in the wider public interest on behalf of democratic institutions, civility, and a generosity of spirit that is an American hallmark.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].