- - Sunday, January 15, 2017


George Washington established the precedent of the farewell address. Not every president has something to say as he leaves the White House. Those who do, or think they do, usually indulge mostly in self-congratulations. Some indulge self-delusion.

President Obama spoke for 51 minutes last week, not from the Oval Office, where most outgoing presidents with something to say make their farewells. Mr. Obama flew off to Chicago to speak from a stage at McCormick Place, and a crowd of his friends and fans was large enough to make respectable noise when he told them that “race relations are better [now] than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago.” No one holds even a president to unvarnished facts, but that’s debatable.

A CNN-ORC survey in October found that 54 percent of Americans polled say relations between black and white worsened on Mr. Obama’s watch. Those findings were in line with a Rasmussen poll in July that found 60 percent thought race relations had worsened under Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama was elected in 2008 largely on the strength of expectations of Americans, both white and black, that his election would be the magic elixir that would at last cure the oldest of what ails the body politic. That, alas, did not happen.

Two racial incidents five years apart in his presidency suggest that Mr. Obama himself made things worse. In July 2009, a white police officer saw what he thought was man breaking into a house on a quiet street in Cambridge, Mass. It turned out the man, who was detained, was Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, and he was “breaking” into his own house. Mr. Obama scolded the cops for “acting stupidly,” though he conceded that he had no firsthand knowledge of the circumstances. The controversy quickly went on the boil, and stayed there even after the president invited both the officer and the professor to sit down with him at what the newspapers quickly called “the beer summit.”

Five years later a young black man with a rap sheet robbed a convenience store in Ferguson, Mo., and on his way down the street tried to wrest a police officer’s gun from him. In the struggle the cop shot and killed the hooligan in what he said was self-defense. Trying to disarm a cop is an unfailing recipe for a very bad day. Nevertheless, and once more without firsthand knowledge of the details, the president sent three of his top aides to the funeral of Michael Brown. Few hooligans get such a send-off.

The incident was the first of several fatal encounters of black suspects and white policemen, and from those encounters the Black Lives Matter movement was born. The Justice Department of Eric Holder Jr., the president’s first U.S. attorney general, eventually cleared the officer of blame. The slain hooligan nevertheless became something of an icon of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Millions of Americans, including many who did not vote for him, thought the election of a black president would improve race relations. But it was not to be. As his share of the white vote continued to shrink, anyone who opposed his policies and programs to “fundamentally transform” America risked being branded a racist and a bigot.

“By almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started,” Mr. Obama said in his farewell, ticking off a lengthy list of things he considers his presidency’s signature achievements. Sad to say, improved race relations are not one of them.

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