Since George Washington penned his farewell address in 1796, announcing he would not seek reelection and laying out his hopes and fears for the nascent country, presidential farewell speeches have become an enshrined tradition in the peaceful and democratic transfer of power.
President Obama announced Monday that his farewell speech will be Tuesday, Jan. 10 in Chicago. It will be held at McCormick Place, the venue for Obama’s 2012 Election Night celebration. In announcing the speech, Obama said he’s just starting to write his remarks but he’s “thinking about them as a chance to say thank you for this amazing journey, to celebrate the ways you’ve changed this country for the better these past eight years, and to offer some thoughts on where we all go from here.”
Presidential farewell speeches have historically been a chance for presidents to defend their accomplishments and lay out their hopes for the future. In some cases, the speeches have included pointed warnings that reverberate long after the speech has ended. For example, in his farewell address on Jan. 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the country about the growing might of the military, and in doing so, coined the term “military-industrial complex,” the relationship between the U.S. armed forces and defense contractors. NPR’s Tom Bowman reported on the lasting impact of this speech in 2011, noting that it “has become a rallying cry for opponents of military expansion.” Bowman said:
Eisenhower was worried about the costs of an arms race with the Soviet Union, and the resources it would take from other areas — such as building hospitals and schools.
Bowman says that in the speech, Eisenhower also spoke as someone who had seen the horror and lingering sadness of war, saying that “we must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”
Another concern, Bowman says, was the possibility that as the military and the arms industry gained power, they would be a threat to democracy, with civilians losing control of the military-industrial complex.
In his farewell address on Jan. 15, 1953, President Harry Truman reflected on and defended his decision to drop the atomic bomb in Japan and mused about the start of the Cold War era. He said:
I suppose that history will remember my term in office as the years when the “cold war” began to overshadow our lives. I have had hardly a day in office that has not been dominated by this all—embracing struggle—this conflict between those who love freedom and those who would lead the world back into slavery and darkness. And always in the background there has been the atomic bomb.
President Ronald Reagan named the deficit as one of his regrets in his address to the nation on Jan. 11, 1989. He called out “popular culture” saying:
For those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom. … And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile. It needs production. So we’ve got to teach history based not on what is in fashion, but what is important.
In President Bill Clinton’s speech on January 18, 2001, Clinton hailed the economic progress under his administration and called for the U.S. to be a beacon of freedom and peace in the world. He also saluted America’s diversity, saying:
In our hearts and in our laws, we must treat all our people with fairness and dignity, regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation and regardless of when they arrived in our country, always moving toward the more perfect union of our founders’ dreams.
George W. Bush delivered his farewell address on Jan. 15, 2009. Despite his dismal approval ratings and a limping economy, he said, “You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.” He also called Obama’s election “a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.”
Obama leaves office with his approval rating at a seven-year high, according to Gallup. Despite Obama’s conciliatory post-election speech about president-elect Donald Trump, and his administration’s ongoing transition work, Trump tweeted on Dec. 28: “Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks. Thought it was going to be a smooth transition - NOT!”
With the country fiercely divided after the election, Obama is expected to continue to strike a hopeful tone about the incoming Trump administration. And with much of his policy legacy — including his executive actions on immigration and the Affordable Care Act — at stake, it’s likely Obama will use his address to defend his actions.
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