Obama's Farewell Speech: Atticus Finch and the Power of We

President Barack Obama at his farewell address in Chicago on January 10th, 2017.

President Barack Obama at his farewell address in Chicago on January 10th, 2017.

By Emily Lever

In his farewell address--the latest installment in a presidential tradition dating back to George Washington--Barack Obama closed out a historic political chapter begun with another acclaimed speech, the one he gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Much of the speech was classic Obama, but the president was just a bit more pointed than his usual measured self when he spoke on racism and economic oppression. He reiterated his deep belief in his fellow citizens, urging them to be politically active and adding, in a note that French linguist and literary philosopher Roland Barthes might have appreciated, that his beloved Constitution is after all just a text--"We the people give it meaning." 

The message of unity despite difference -- the underlying theme of so much of his rhetoric -- returned, this time bolstered by a quote from Atticus Finch, the heroic figure of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." With that in mind, he urged groups who see themselves as enemies to try to appreciate each other's perspective.

Quoting Finch was appropriate in more ways than one: this icon of anti-racism was revealed, in Lee's follow-up Go Set A Watchman, to be prejudiced and racist himself. As Obama noted, the "post-racial society" some thought he ushered in never actually existed, and a deeper look at any American institution reveals the nation's iniquities. The president's calls for unity did not heal the country's divisions and prejudices. But in his remarks he encouraged ordinary Americans to try to act upon the ideas he had outlined throughout his career in public life and thus give them meaning. Closing the speech with his simple but iconic and powerful slogan "Yes We Can," Obama affirmed a continuing faith in the collective and hope for the future. LSP