His speech harked back to Washington and Eisenhower.
While the speech was broadly optimistic in tone and avoided any significant discussion of the man who will soon occupy the White House, the bulk of the text was devoted to expressing his fears about how things could go wrong for the United States.
Saying early on that his speech’s theme would be “the state of our democracy,” Obama went on: “There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times.”
The president named five specific threats he said he felt American democracy was currently facing: economic inequality, racial tensions, polarization, foreign threats, and decaying democratic institutions.
“How we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland,” Obama said.
Presidential farewell warnings have a long history
The tradition of the presidential farewell address technically dates back to George Washington, who published the first and most famous such address (in text form) in September 1796. The tradition fell out of fashion for some time, but with the dawn of mass communication technology in the mid-20th century it came back in vogue, and since then, every president who’s served two full terms in office has delivered one.
Most farewell addresses are forgettable. They’re a time for presidents to brag about their accomplishments, say how much they’ve loved serving the country, and give a final goodbye on their way out. Few remember, for instance, George W. Bush’sfarewell reflections on the war on terror or Bill Clinton’s argument for fiscal responsibility.