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What Obama’s address has in common with memorable farewells from past presidents

With President Obama’s final speech to the nation Tuesday night in Chicago, he faced a unique challenge unlike any modern president that came before him: How to give the milestone farewell address, one that typically touts a president’s key achievements and attempts to define his legacy before he leaves office, just as his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is threatened to be undone.

Yet two aspects of his address gave it something in common with what scholars say are among the best farewell speeches of past presidents. Of course, Obama recapped some signature moments and milestones, weaving them through a speech that focused on the ideals of democracy. But he also delivered a warning of sorts about the threats to U.S. democracy at this historic juncture, much as the farewell remarks from George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower struck their own vigilant tone.

Unlike inaugural addresses, which tend to be visionary and future-oriented, or State of the Union remarks, which lay out a policy agenda, farewell addresses typically don’t garner the attention of other key presidential speeches. Some presidents make their final remarks as part of their last State of the Union, while others, said University of Pennsylvania communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, offer several speeches toward the end of their presidency about a single topic of importance.

“Lyndon B. Johnson went on what amounted to a farewell binge,” she noted, with multiple speeches about the problems in Vietnam. Others, such as Richard Nixon, never offer formal ones.

“This is a fairly complex piece of rhetoric,” she said. “If the inaugural invests you with the presidency, the farewell divests you, rhetorically. It transitions you back into the role of a citizen.”

On Tuesday night, Obama spoke, albeit briefly, about the country’s economic progress since he took office amid the financial crisis and the Great Recession. He spoke about taking out Osama bin Laden, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba during his tenure.

And of course, he spoke about his signature legislative achievement — the Affordable Care Act — noting the country had secured “the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens.” While he said that if “anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health-care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it,” he also did not dwell on it, or address the unusual scenario wherein his foremost accomplishment could be undone. As Jamieson said, “I can’t remember an address where a president is in that situation,” having one of his biggest successes so quickly imperiled.

Obama focused the speech on threats to U.S. democracy, warning that “there have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well.”

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, suggested Tuesday in an interview preceding Obama’s speech that Americans’ cavalier attitude to democracy could be a topic for his remarks. “I think he’s going to want to talk about the future, and how many Americans are taking democracy for granted,” he said. He and Jamieson both said such cautionary warnings are a hallmark of some of the best farewell addresses.

“As a result of their experience, [presidents] want to make a statement to their successor — and to history — about something they think is very important for them,” Jamieson said. “They don’t simply telegraph their major accomplishments, but forecast a future of the country that ought to guide us going forward.”

In Obama’s remarks — a hopeful and optimistic vision, but one that was grounded in cautions about risks to the U.S. system of government — he said that the U.S. democracy was threatened by economic inequality, racial differences and a lack of “some common baseline of facts.”

“The peril each poses to our democracy is more far reaching than a car bomb or a missile,” he said in his remarks. “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 two most memorable farewell speeches have cast such warnings, both Jamieson and Brinkley said. Eisenhower’s memorable caution about the “military-industrial complex” was part of his notable 1961 speech: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Meanwhile, George Washington sounded the alarm about both steering “clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” as well as the one that is often most remembered, regarding the threat of partisanship. “There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty,” Washington warned in a printed address. “This within certain limits is probably true.”

Yet he also said he wanted to warn Americans “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.”

Obama did not quote the same lines in his speech, but he did refer to Washington’s famous first farewell address. “George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity and liberty,” Obama said, “but ‘from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken . . . to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.’ ” Americans need to “reject ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one,” Obama quoted Washington as saying.

Other memorable farewell speeches, Brinkley said, have been Andrew Jackson’s, which was particularly long and is known for its reverence for the Founding Fathers: “You have no longer any cause to fear danger from abroad. . . . It is from within, among yourselves — from cupidity, from corruption, from disappointed ambition and inordinate thirst for power — that factions will be formed and liberty endangered.”

Harry Truman’s plain-spoken goodbye speech is also considered notable, both for his discussion of the decisions he faced and the way he spoke about the difficulty of the job. Truman’s speech was given “at the beginning of television age, and he spoke about the burdens of office, being the first Cold War president and the dropping of the atomic bomb,” Brinkley said.

Indeed, even as Truman left the job, he seemed particularly in awe of it, saying there is “no job like it on the face of the earth” and noting “the power which is concentrated here at this desk, and in the responsibility and difficulty of the decisions.” He wanted to share that difficulty with American citizens.

“I want all of you to realize how big a job, how hard a job, it is – not for my sake, because I am stepping out of it – but for the sake of my successor,” Truman said. “He needs the understanding and the help of every citizen. It is not enough for you to come out once every four years and vote for a candidate, and then go back home and say, ‘Well, I’ve done my part, now let the new President do the worrying.’ He can’t do the job alone.”

Obama did not focus on the difficulty of the job, but did sound a similar note about the need for all Americans to take part, and to believe in democracy’s power.

“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours,” Obama said to close his speech. “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.”