[guest post by JVW]
At this point there is no doubt that President Obama is leaving office on an entirely ungraceful, self-regarding, and petulant note. Why, after observing him for eight years, would we expect otherwise? He’s done virtually nothing to try to scale back (let alone tamp down) the expected mass protests tomorrow by his supporters alongside of anarchists and other elements of the far left, and he is continually lecturing the majority party against trying to undo the damage he has done, much of it via Executive Order, over the past few years. For a man who spent the 2014 and 2016 elections insisting they were a referendum on his policies — only to see those policies strongly repudiated at the ballot box — to now exit stage far left as some sort of sagacious oracle who brought enlightenment to the dull-minded citizenry whom he graciously acquiesced to server is a level of narcissistic self-regard scarcely believable. But it’s hard to not believe that the soon-but-not-soon-enough-to-be ex-Presdent has rankled his successor in such a way that calls for retribution.
So I am now taking virtual and unenforceable bets on how our Forty-Fifth President of the United States responds in kind. The President-elect has declared that he wrote his own speech and given that he is a man who isn’t shy about settling scores the question remains of how he will treat the outgoing President in his speech. First of all, the new President is more or less obligated to throw out a line thanking his predecessor. Here are some notable examples where the two are of different parties:
Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981
[. . .] “The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.
[to Jimmy Carter] “Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.”
Bill Clinton, January 20, 1993
“On behalf of our Nation, I salute my predecessor, President Bush, for his half-century of service to America. And I thank the millions of men and women whose steadfastness and sacrifice triumphed over depression, fascism, and communism.”
George W. Bush, January 20, 2001
“As I begin, I thank President Clinton for his service to our Nation, and I thank Vice President Gore for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.”
Barack Obama, January 20, 2009
[. . .] “I thank President Bush for his service to our Nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.”
So based upon that I think it is safe to say that tomorrow’s speech will include a blandishment along the lines of “I thank President Obama for his service to our country.” If it is a grudge time, a different phrasing could suggest a harsher tone: “I thank President Obama for all he has done for me. And I mean that.” But it’s probably a safe bet that the new President will fall back on the bland tradition of his predecessors.
Where it really gets interesting is in whether or not our 45th President paints a dire picture of America and implicitly — or, given whom we are discussing, explicitly — blames the 44th President and his policies. Again, here is Obama from eight years ago:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our Nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the Nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly. Our schools fail too many. And each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.
[. . .]
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. [. . .] And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet.
In all, a pretty blistering appraisal of the Bush years. Here is what Ronald Reagan had to say about the close of the Carter Era 28 years earlier:
These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.
[. . .]
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline.
Interestingly enough, at a tense time in the Cold War the man whose critics all derided him as a warmonger spent only four short paragraphs on foreign policy in his inauguration, promising to support freedom-loving peoples, oppose tyrannies, and always be willing to negotiate for peace. He did not so much utter the words “Soviet Union,” nor did he say “Iran” or “Afghanistan.”
So given the times, the circumstances, the built-up animosity, what do you expect out of tomorrow’s inaugural address? Will our new President name-check all of the ideas and policies of his predecessor that he finds objectionable? Will he instead be a little more arch and measured, and perhaps speak in favor of “the common man” without explicitly deriding the self-declared elites? Keep in mind that the President-elect has characterized his address as being on the shorter side, so perhaps the betting money is that it will be bland and boilerplate. In any case, here is how I see the odds stacking up:
Angry, score-settling address attacking his critics: 3:1 against
Brief, bland address covering well-trod ground from the campaign: 5:4 for
Long-winded recitation of detailed policy plans: 10:1 against
An emotional, heartfelt appeal for national unity: 7:1 against
A repudiation of every position he took during the campaign: 15:1 against (let’s hope!)
Feel free to make predictions in the comments and we can come back tomorrow night and see how everyone did.