It would be human nature for a president making his (or someday her) exit to use the occasion of a farewell address to boast about past successes, ignore or put a positive spin on past failures and blame the other party for the lack of opportunity or ability to do more. Certainly some have done this to some extent, but for the most part, Presidents have used the occasion of their valedictories not only to look to the past, but also to look toward the future. In examining a number of these farewells, two things seem clear: (1) Past presidents have had remarkable foresight into predicting the problems that the nation would face in coming years; and (2) For the most part, subsequent administrations have ignored those warnings. Perhaps that's just a part of the life of a nation, just as children ignore their parents advice and make the same mistakes that their parents made, only to hope that their children will break the cycle.
Post-mortems of a president's past are often little more than self-congratulatory. They are red meat for supporters, and a poke in the eye to political opponents. While Americans can be proud that Osama Bin Laden was captured on the watch of the President Obama, or that the economy came back under Ronald Reagan, boasting of these feats by the presidents themselves does little to create a spirit of unity, and are more often interpreted as a back-handed criticism implying that they did something that the other guy failed to do. Similarly, little was served by President Clinton failing to acknowledge and express regret over his moral failures, or by President Bush refusing to acknowledge that the war in Iraq may have been based on faulty intelligence. A frank acknowledgement of mistakes does more to promote healing than understatement, ignoring the issue, or putting a phony spin on what has happened.
The real value of farewell addresses can be found in what presidents have learned in their time in office that is of value for the next generation and the next administration. Over the course of history, Presidents have warned Americans of coming trends with amazing foresight and accuracy. Perhaps no president's warning has withstood the test of time as much as George Washington. His warnings against foreign entanglements (not his words, but his sentiment) and unhealthy partisanship have come to pass. Other presidents have also left warnings that have been prescient and visionary, such as Dwight Eisenhower's warning to be on guard against "the military industrial complex", Bill Clinton's warning against deficit spending, George W. Bush's warning against isolationism and protectionism, and Barack Obama's call for political involvement in the face of toxic politics. Let's look at some of these.
1. Foreign Affairs: Washington warned that "permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded". He said that instead, the United States should cultivate "just and amicable feelings towards all". He said, "The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy." He warned that "The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim." In the time that Washington uttered those words, the nation has joined in two world wars as well as conflicts with Great Britain, Mexico, Spain, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. In many cases, that involvement was reasonably justified. George W. Bush reminded Americans in his farewell, that "But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere." Joining in the cause to stop Hitler's "final solution" is one that is hard to take issue, and in many of the other conflicts, principled stances can justify what followed. In some of these conflicts, reasonable persons can disagree whether the loss of life occasioned in many of the other wars were justified. While no clear consensus emerges, what is clear is that Washington could clearly see that this was an issue in which the nation would have to contend with in its future. This remains the case as nations like Korea, Iran and others will test the mettle of the nation's commanders-in-chief in years to come.
2. Partisanship: Washington saw political parties as a danger to the fragile union that he presided over. In his final address he wanted to warn Americans "in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally." He said, "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual, and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty." In spite of this, political parties have become a reality. At times the division was geographic moreso than philosophical. It was north vs. south, free state vs. slave state. Today it is seen in terms of liberal vs. conservative. There has always been an atmosphere of "the wealthy elite vs. the common man" though today each party would insist that it is the party of the latter. The influence of money in politics today is such that both will continue to cultivate the support of the former. Recent elections (and perhaps all elections) have been fought with a strategy of rallying the support of majorities against minorities show that what Washington has predicted has come to pass. Rather than candidates trying to unite all the people towards a common solution to problems, the candid observation that large percentages of voters will never vote for one party or the other is today's reality.
3. Military spending: In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower warned: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." Previous presidents were alert to the danger of keeping large standing armies, but all presidents have similarly been alert to the need for a strong military defense as one of the most powerful motivators for peace. Over his watch, Eisenhower had reduced military spending from $402 billion to $344 billion, a modest decrease, but still admirable considering that a Cold War was taking place. Since then, military spending has peaked in 2010, with decreases since. In fiscal year 2017, total US government spending for defense (including military defense, veterans affairs, and foreign policy) is budgeted to be $853.6 billion. Eisenhower's warning remains relevant today, especially in light of rising deficit spending.
4. Debt and Deficits: Ronald Reagan cited his greatest regret as the huge increase in the debt during his time in office. Bill Clinton, the president who was most successful in attacking government spending, left office with his last four budgets having "turned record deficits to record surpluses, and we've been able to pay down $600 billion of our national debt—on track to be debt-free by the end of the decade for the first time since 1835." He urged Americans to stay on that course and said that doing so would "bring lower interest rates, greater prosperity, and the opportunity to meet our big challenges." Regrettably, during the presidency of George W. Bush, the debt increased by $5.849, a 101 percent increase in the $5.8 trillion debt level at the end of Clinton's last budget. Barack Obama added $7.917 trillion, a 68 percent increase in the $11.657 trillion debt level at the end of the Bush presidency. It should be kept in mind that the President has no control over the mandatory budget or its deficit (including Social Security and Medicare benefits, the two biggest expenses any President has. The mandatory budget estimates what these programs will cost. The Constitution gives Congress, not the President, the power to control spending. The President’s budget is starting point. Each house of Congress prepares a discretionary spending budget. They combine them into the final budget that the President reviews and signs. Each President inherits many of his predecessors' policies. Presidents have had lower revenues since the Reagan and Bush tax cuts. Presidents who raise taxes quickly become unpopular. As a result, tax cuts rarely disappear. Each year's deficit adds to the debt. It will take the combined will of the President and Congress to attack the national debt.
5. Protectionism: As a new administration promises an "America First" policy, the lessons of past difficulties with protectionist policies come to mind. Protectionism is a policy that has resulted in negative economic consequences down the road, and may be even more risky at a time when the world has gotten smaller and national economies have become global ones. As President George W. Bush warned in his farewell address, "In the face of threats from abroad, it can be tempting to seek comfort by turning inward. But we must reject isolationism and its companion, protectionism. Retreating behind our borders would only invite danger. In the 21st century, security and prosperity at home depend on the expansion of liberty abroad." Protectionist policies and short-sighted economic policies have led to economic "panics" in 1837 and 1893. Every president who adopts protectionist policies will insist that these times are different. Is this true, or is this another example of what Einstein defined as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results"? Prepare to be part of another great economic experiment.
6. Toxic politics: In the aftermath of President Trump's election, there appears to be a higher level of toxicity and vitriol in the level of political debate. Protest of an incumbent president is nothing new, as history has shown us. Washington had his own "fake news" to contend with, and political vitriol and unfounded personal attack has been a constant in American Politics. But in his recent farewell, President Obama has recognized the real danger, when he warned: "For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there." Obama commented that too many good people were staying out of politics. He correctly observed:
"We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them."
Obama said that it was now more important than ever for citizens to become "anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours." The benefits of honest, civil and respectful political discourse are immense. The politics of malevolence and insult give rise to a "survival of the meanest". But like the alcoholic who fails to see the benefits of sobriety, many people use social media as means to cultivate mean-spiritedness, not to look for common solutions. Obama's warning and call for people to get involved and look for fact-based compassionate solutions to the problems facing the nation is a timely and important one. People will have to get past their belief that "liberal" is a dirty word, or that all Trump supporters are "racist". Generalizations must be set aside to look for common problems and common solutions.
Is the end near? Will the ship of state run aground or hit the icebergs of unwise foreign policy, self-interested partisanship, subservience to the military industrial complex, rampant spending and toxic politics that causes good people to shun involvement in favor of the petty and the greedy? Or will the national resilience and collective wisdom steer the ship of state in a safe direction once more? Someday history will have those answers. As President Obama has recently observed, history is in the hands of the individual. As he said in his farewell:
"If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed."