It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.
Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.
Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.
Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.
But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.
In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?
Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.
The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.
One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.
At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.
We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.
We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.
Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”
We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.
What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.
Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.