Barack Obama has the unique gift of being able to couch everything he did — including his shortcomings — in reams of mellifluous, stirring words. Read anything he ever said about gun control in the U.S. or the Assad regime in Syria, and you never would guess that these were two notable failures of his administration. His words compensate for those failures, and bring goosebumps to his many successes.
Given the example of the blinkered nihilist who replaced him as leader of the free world, Barack Obama has a long and lucrative career ahead of him as the world’s comforter-in-chief — a man who can reassure the jittered masses that “progress does not always move in a straight line.”
Obama used a variation of that line in 2012, after he beat Mitt Romney, and he used it again on Tuesday night in Montreal. It was his first major speech after leaving office, and he did so before a crowd seemingly eager for … a bit of hope, yes, but also to harken back to a time, all of five months ago, when the world wasn’t wincing at what the puckered mouth and busy thumbs of the current president might spew out next.
So, did he succeed? Yes and no, mostly yes. By his presence alone, he has given a serious boost to Montreal’s ego, as the city celebrates its 375 years of existence amidst a construction boom, a decent economic outlook and a suddenly boffo real estate market. He didn’t pick Toronto, or Ottawa, or even Vancouver, that glass-tower ode to social and economic progress on the west coast.
No, he picked us, with our freakish politics and dazzling decrepitude. His visit, said Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal President Michel Leblanc, “will be subject of analysis around the world, and all will say Obama was giving a speech in Montreal, Canada.” His voice cracked when he said it.
What we got was a coy but decidedly cautious Obama. The name ‘Trump’ wasn’t once mentioned, out of either a sense of diplomacy or a desire to starve the clown of further attention. Instead, we got a boilerplate replay of the grand structures and ideas Obama preached throughout his two terms in office.
To wit: The world is at an inflection point, where globalization and technological change have brought success to countless millions, yet must be tempered by human decency so that it isn’t only those at the top who benefit in the future. The rich must take care of the poor, out of pragmatism if not out of compassion. The internet, too, is a double-edged sword, with its ability to connect “peoples and cultures” but also to serve as a tool for terrorists to spread hatred.
Ultimately, though (and this is the crux of literally dozens of Obama’s speeches) the world is safer, more peaceful and more prosperous than ever. Progress doesn’t always move in a straight line, but at least it’s still moving. “It’s an extraordinary time that sometimes we take for granted,” he said.
Never named, Donald Trump was still very much present in Obama’s words. In fact, roughly two thirds of the 30-minute speech was what you might call a giant, cerebral subtweet of the 45th president. It began at the seven minute mark, with a reference to TV and Twitter bringing us a “steady stream of bad news and sometimes fake news.” It continued with a reference to “tribalism, extreme nationalism and xenophobia”, nudged a bit more with a nod to “populist alternatives that may not deliver” and approached a crescendo with a line about “a splintering where we don’t have disagreements based on opinions … now people are just disagreeing on facts.”
This speech, hardly a barnstormer, will be often heard in the coming year. Obama will have ready audiences willing to contribute to his reported $400,000 speaking fee, if only to be comforted for 30 short minutes. “As you can see, you have many friends in Montreal,” said Gaz Metro President Sophie Brochu, who served as moderator.
She was right. He has many friends everywhere, no matter what he says — or doesn’t.
Author: Martin Patriquin