Barack Obama has reached out to the American family in his final speech as President of the United States. From the outset, he echoed the words, ideas, and values of his wife Michelle in her final speech last Friday, while at the same time offering a more sobering vision of the challenges that lie ahead. Where The First Lady's speech appeared to flow effortlessly towards a conclusion of undiluted hope, her husband burdened his speech with more direct reference to the challenges faced by their country in this time of change. Yet, Barack Obama's speech also served an important inspirational purpose and reinforcement of an ideal that history does not just exist in the tempus of the present.
Taking up the baton from his wife in his farewell address in Chicago last night, the outgoing President placed a similar underlying emphasis on hope, diversity, and a continuation of tradition. Though he enacted his vision in a different language, he employed many of the same linguistic devices as his wife four days previously. Where hope had been the key word of The First Lady's Speech, one of the President's most recurring sentiments was that of America as a home.
Seven times he raised this image, in various forms of wording from a "homeland" of the present to "homesteads" of the past. A sense of continuation characterised his speech too. Though this was a farewell speech, he made no reference to chapters being closed, despite some notes of caution that he sounded. Seemingly driven by a desire to sound positive, while pragmatic, he spoke of new opportunities opening up, and the many positive changes that had occurred during his tenure in office, which remained as yet unfinished. Like Michelle, he spoke of the work that remained to be done, not just in terms of economics, democracy, and security, but in upholding America's tradition of diversity. Here again, the outgoing President placed an emphasis on continuation, evoking images of newcomers from the past such as the Irish, Poles, and Italians. They too had faced hostility, and accusations of threatening to "destroy the fundamental character of America."
However, once again echoing his wife's earlier speech, the outgoing President stressed that diversity had enriched the United States rather than divided it. Last Friday Michelle made a subtle series of suggestions for the next generation. She stressed the importance of fighting for the future, using the language of aspiration to offer suggestions for challenges she never labelled directly. Barack, on the other hand, adopted a more direct problem and solution approach. He was more explicit in defining the problems that his country faces in modern times, domestically and internationally. Although Donald Trump's name entered the equation only once, Obama made several subtle allusions to features of the divisive campaign that had ushered in the President elect. This included mention of the ways in which people had interacted, via the Internet, and could again be taken as a continuance of Michelle's aspiration for more active participation in politics and society.
While staying true to his wife's aspirations for the future, the outgoing President placed a greater emphasis upon history, and the lessons it provides. Stressing that division is not a new phenomenon, Obama decidedly situated his speech in the broader context of American and world history. This has been a feature of his political speeches from the outset when he drew upon the words and ideas of Martin Luther King in his inaugural address in 2009. This too tends to be an abiding feature of speeches given by American Presidents, and male political leaders. Where Michelle could concentrate her thoughts upon the everyday lives of Americans, in their family homes and their classrooms, Obama realised the need for his words to have resonance far beyond these ordinary contexts. Perhaps in doing so, his speech lost some of its natural emotion, and Michelle's may well prove to be the one, in the long term, that speaks more to America's heart and the direction in which it is headed in this time of uncertainty.
From a structural and linguistic perspective too, Michelle's speech, being shorter, seemed to be packaged in a better overall form. In a time of grand ideas, and an era described as post-truth politics, she touched a rawer nerve of emotion. Though her speech was more feminine in some ways, it was also powerfully feminist. Serving almost as a call to arms for the next generation of political activists, her message was one that touched the hearts of ordinary Americans. The language she used and the verbs employed throughout suggested that such change could be enacted by anyone. Her husband, on the other hand, bore the expectations of his office in putting forward a more expansive vision of America. This is one that still remains a home for all its people in their glorious diversity, but needs to get its house in order too, and stay at the forefront of global politics, militarily, economically, and addressing climate change.
Perhaps in the end these speeches truly reflect the character of the two people who made them. Obama, the great idealist and thinker who has had to become more pragmatic during his time in office, but has remained true to his underlying values and risen to the level of world statesman. Michelle, on the other hand, has been able to stay true to the everyday concerns of people, not just in America but worldwide, and offer a more emotional, aspirational vision of the future. Above all as they say goodbye, despite some malaise, they leave behind the echo of one word that sums up everything they have stood for - HOPE.
Dr Paul Breen is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Westminster's Professional Language Centre and author