Unfortunately, we do not have a tradition here where presidents, before leaving office, deliver a valedictory. That allows them to set their years of service in perspective and account for what they have done.
The last president we had simply crept out of the way. He did not even bother to summon the intellectual courage to provide his term in office some form of historical perspective. What came as his farewell speech of sorts was the last State of the Nation Address he delivered. There he thanked his stylist, among others.
Since he left office, we have heard nothing of Benigno Simeon Aquino III. He did attend, obligatorily, the National Security Council meeting some months ago. There, the only notable thing he did was snub his predecessor. He has since absented himself from all the other ceremonial appearances such as AFP command turnovers and his successor’s maiden State of the Nation Address.
He is such a different personality from, say, Fidel V. Ramos. The latter makes it a point to attend every ceremonial function. After leaving office, he pursued his advocacies on the international stage. He writes an opinion column and intermittently collects those columns into books. Every time I run into him, Ramos seems to have some photocopied material to share. He threatened never to retire and never did.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, likewise, never disengaged from the political life of our nation. Even when she was unjustly detained, she kept running for her congressional seat and winning it. Today, the rumor mill has it the alignment of political forces could push her up to the speakership.
Neither has the gregarious Joseph Estrada left the stage. He narrowly got himself reelected Mayor of Manila and leverages whatever influence he has left to maintain himself in the political circuit.
Presidents never really retire. They might try very hard not to interfere in the work of their successor. But they are ever present on the sidelines, assuring us that those who once worked from the vantage point of the presidency continue to reflect on the nation’s journey.
Surely Barack Obama is not going away from the arena of public discourse. Anyone who listened to his valedictory yesterday, delivered in his adopted hometown of Chicago, is assured this man will be a continuing presence – and not only by writing his memoirs.
What we heard yesterday is a preview of Citizen Barack. He is a man who embraces his values well and inspires others to do the same.
Obama’s strongest virtue is his articulateness. Yesterday we saw that virtue in full play, many times bringing the audience to its feet and bringing tears to the eyes of those who do not want to see him leave.
With Obama and the values he held dear, we were sure where America was heading. And it was a good road. With Donald Trump, we are not really sure what surprises he might spring upon us. Obama is profound; Trump is shallow. Obama has deep intellectual roots; Trump cuts deals.
Obama’s valedictory speech was masterful from every angle. He did not wallow in the shrill partisanships of the just concluded elections. He soared higher and spoke of the strength of American democracy and the central role citizens play in it.
The outgoing US president did not make a litany of his administration’s achievements. He attributed his successes to the work of ordinary citizens who believed they can. These citizens include the nameless volunteers who knocked on doors and propelled a relatively unknown black politician from Chicago to the most powerful post on earth.
Whatever gains his administration may rightfully lay claim to, Obama wove into the colorful narrative of democratic politics. American democracy, he said, was driven by reason and enterprise.
Democracy’s greatest enemy is not some band of ignorant fanatics bent on sowing terror. Its greatest enemy is fear. When a public is fearful, they lose perspective. They lose their sense of proportion. Their optimism is drained.
This is why terrorist groups do what they do. They are seeking to break the morale of democratic publics. They want these publics to seek recourse in tyrants and demagogues.
Obama addressed all Americans: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.” No tribute to the importance of ordinary citizens could be more astute.
As if to assure his countrymen he will continue to be around, Obama added: “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.”
And so we wish he will. The transition happening in Washington DC seems so uncertain.
Hillary Clinton received three million more votes than Donald Trump. However, the Electoral College format, invented long ago to advantage the slave owning states, did not reflect popular sentiment. We now have a situation where a majority of Americans disagree with the incoming president, some quite vehemently.
It does not help that US intelligence services are unanimous in the finding Russian hackers, allegedly on direct orders from Vladimir Putin, interfered in the electoral process to discredit Hillary. Now, new information has emerged that Russian hackers have seriously derogatory information on Donald Trump. There is danger he assumes the presidency under a cloud of controversy more serious that what he already precipitated.
Already, many of Trump’s Cabinet appointments are being seriously questioned in confirmation hearings ongoing at the US Congress. Donald Trump could take his oath of office a seriously damaged commodity. That is an unhealthy start.