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Obama Out

As a great orator leaves office, we have reached peak speech

This week, the country’s dominant mode of pop-cultural expression was the public speech—something of a throwback trend, given Americans’ patterns of media consumption nowadays. In the smartphone era, we tend not to gather around and listen to our leaders pontificate in the tradition of the FDR fireside chat; the internet and social media provide us with an inexhaustible array of platforms to do so on our own. Indeed, it seems like there are fewer opportunities than ever to listen to traditional public discourse of any kind, immersed though we may be in the informal soliloquies of strangers via YouTube vlogs and tutorials, celebrity Snapchat stories, and off-the-cuff TED talks that have all casually democratized the form. But coming off a spate in late 2016 dominated by memorable addresses—pre- and post-election speeches, Kanye’s concert rants, Kim Burrell’s homophobic sermon—we actually seemed to have officially reached peak speech, just days before President-elect Trump’s inauguration.

In the early part of the week, we watched as people spoke to assembled audiences, to TV cameras, directly to home crowds on couches and those crouched in front of devices. In all their glory, these talks proved the power, and also the illusory magic, of public oration. On Sunday night, the Golden Globe Awards made news for a few viral acceptance speeches, snippets of which made their way in clips and memes around the web. Donald Glover’s nod to the Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” sent the song to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 overnight; Tom Hiddleston’s self-aggrandizing stemwinder about his involvement in Doctors Without Borders—er, Médicins Sans Frontières—made him Twitter bait (and subject to the gif that keeps on giving); Viola Davis made two headline-worthy ones, in honor of her dad and Meryl Streep. And of course Streep’s thoughtful diatribe against our bad, bourgeois president-elect and all he stands for inspired his first legit Twitter rant of the year. Briefly, we focused on the Hidden Fences debacle, named so for the unfortunate portmanteau made by Jenna Bush Hager and Michael Keaton’s conflation of Hidden Figures and Fences, two of the year’s high-profile black films. This all happened in the peculiar portal that is January 2017—itself a kind of portmanteau period, a Black Mirror-plane in which this country’s political cultures are briefly, and awkwardly, overlapping. 

We’ve all got one foot in the Obama era and the other in Trump’s America.

The hybrid place we occupy was made more pronounced by way of increasingly high-stakes public addresses that seemed related in the way that all concerned speakers highlighted the pull of both men’s influence. These sensibilities collided on Tuesday, when things took an abrupt, Cold Warrish detour into the sinister. After a fair amount of ceremonial self-congratulation, our media culture was now contending with focus on the criminal context of hidden fences dominating the news. The concern this time was the shadowy hand of Russian kingmakers who were alleged to have had done what street fences/middlemen do: pawn off stolen merchandise (in this case, an election) as legitimate goods. That same day, BuzzFeed kicked off the bizarre proceedings and published a bombshell: a thirty-five-page dossier of unverified claims made by an anonymous British intelligence agent, that Russia had compromising personal and financial information on Donald Trump, and that Russia’s leaders had been secretly supporting his political rise for the past five years. Late Wednesday morning, Trump held an already-scheduled press conference to ostensibly address the steps he’d taken to avoid conflicts of interest in his business dealings, but of course wound up having to discuss the cyberespionage allegations. That afternoon, Senator Cory Booker gave rousing testimony during Attorney General-nominee Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearing, asserting the value of speaking up, even against a fellow member of the Senate. He did this while sitting with Rep. John Lewis and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond in a performance that was reminiscent of Obama’s reputation-making Democratic National Convention keynote almost thirteen years ago. Lewis’s passing of the baton to the younger men seated beside him was a less-jarring transition of power than we’re seeing on the presidential level.

It’s almost as if this week were both a model for more engaged public discourse and a cautionary hedge against too much of it.

One week before the inauguration, we’ve been oriented in the way things will be. Tom Hiddleston’s solipsistic ramble seemed an entirely apt, celebrity-authored precursor to Trump’s bizarro series of self-congratulatory remarks and confusing statements about the timing of the ACA replacement and the payment of his U.S.-Mexico wall. Only the terminally irony-deficient could miss the import of the tail-chasing spectacle that featured Trump deriding a CNN reporter with the insult, “You are fake news”: The Trump campaign was both a reliable tributary of fake news and a principal beneficiary of its unchecked circulation on social media. If Trump isn’t ousted early by impeachment or some other now-unforeseeable circumstance, we are almost assured four years of his speechifying, Twitter ranting, and vainglorious venting on the world’s stage. It’s almost as if this week were both a model for more engaged public discourse and a cautionary hedge against too much of it.

These other speeches gave President Obama’s farewell address a new resonance. Tuesday night he delivered a graceful epitaph to his presidency and was, by turns, self-effacing, rhapsodic, and optimistic about the country’s future. This performance, too, recalled many of the oratorical highlights of his 2004 DNC speech, and it served to remind us that many of his most powerful moments on the public stage had nothing to do with policy—such as his speech in the wake of Dylann Roof’s racist massacre in Charleston, SC, and any other in a depressingly urgent series of presidential addresses on race, gun violence, and police brutality. Some of these performances were more insightful than others, though Obama himself was almost always eloquent. In December 2008, a month before he took office, Zadie Smith gave a lecture about the allure and dexterity of Obama’s accent, the way it spoke to many at once, and how it contorted and shifted depending on his audience—a mutable, beautiful thing. During Tuesday night’s address he not only flexed his famous cadence, he also showcased his penchant for letting his successes sing for themselves. He also recurred to the sweeping mood of inclusion he conjured so long ago in Boston, and achieved the rare rhetorical feat of not simply appealing to various communities, but bringing them together in a larger vision of the civic whole: Not red America and blue America, as he intoned at the 2004 DNC, but America. It was a superlative send-off, not unlike the comical mic-drop he did at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner. Or to paraphrase Courtney B. Vance at last year’s Emmys: “Obama out!”

This odd transitional moment in our public discourse brings to mind a motif that animated black comedy before and during Obama’s terms: the black president press conference skits. There are, I’m sure, countless gags that focus on this theme, but Richard Pryor’s notorious “black president” sketch, which resurfaced as a meme during Obama’s first presidential campaign, Dave Chappelle’s turn as “Black Bush,” and Key and Peele’s series of Luther sketches, in which Keegan-Michael Key played Obama’s anger translator, all are instructive case studies. In these sketches, the black presidents tended to start off their talks in a self-consciously reserved and somewhat reticent mood, but as the give and take of a press exchange unfolds, he’d gradually forgo formality and speak from the heart. At this point, his remarks would eventually spool into some stereotypical jive spiel, but the code-switching was always hilarious. And the genius of the Luther bits is that they updated the classic skit’s formula, making Obama’s alter ego an angry master of street invective—while the president himself preserved his perfectly calibrated outward calm and self-control. (Key and Peele recently reprised the bit on the Daily Show, as a farewell gesture to the president.)

At the close of Obama’s tenure, beginning of the Trump era, and with the emergence of the horizontal, gender-inclusive leadership model favored by Black Lives Matter, it seems like the conventional “black president” trope may have outlived its relevance. These sketches were comedic fantasies of what power could look like if the black community were in charge, a classic “shoe’s on the other foot” take on American politics. They offered ways to speculate on what felt like an impossible future, and were laboratories for an experimental vision of black leadership after the deaths or imprisonment of leaders like MLK, Malcolm X, and Huey P. Newton. Those fallen figures themselves followed a black oral tradition that Obama has clearly been very mindful of from the beginning of his political career. He rarely veered from his calm veneer, like those historical leaders or even the fictional black presidents, because he’s always been more bougie than bad, to echo Migos, and to borrow a formulation that Pryor’s character might’ve adopted. In his farewell address Tuesday night and throughout this presidency, Obama was both a throwback of black oratory and a futuristic vision of leadership that not even the oracular Richard Pryor and his acolytes could predict.

And, for the most part, he walked the talk.