Fiyah. Lit. Sixteen bars. There are all sorts of African-American colloquialisms and aphorisms that will be used to describe President Barack Obama’s last speech as president to the Congressional Black Caucus on Saturday night. While all of those descriptions are true enough, there was something even more daring and more compelling about the president’s speech that will likely be overlooked in the frothy mix of nostalgia and praise that will be heaped upon him in the coming days.
Barack Obama has serious concerns about Hillary Clinton's ability to bring this one home.
I have attended just about every Congressional Black Caucus Phoenix Awards Dinner since President Obama took office. Each year had a different feel as his presidency—and what he faced and the challenges the nation faced—became more varied and complicated. I remember the tempered enthusiasm in 2009 when the buzz in the room was simply happy that there was a listening ear in the White House. I remember 2011, probably one of the roughest times of POTUS’s relationship with the caucus. His “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes” speech received copious side eye and open recrimination from some members.
I especially remember 2014, when he exhorted the audience not to have a repeat of 2010, when progress was stymied by a Republican takeover in the House. Each year Obama vacillated between happy, cocky, excited, concerned and occasionally downright condescending. This year he was all of those things.
POTUS came out almost jovial, taking Donald Trump to the woodshed for dragging out the ridiculous Birther nonsense when there were so many other issues facing the nation. And after Obama read Trump like he was a footnote in the Library of Congress, he quickly switched gears toward a long history lesson, praising the ancestors and the great men and women who made his and Michelle Obama’s lives in politics even possible.
However, the third and most important aspect of the speech came when he began to talk about what was really at stake in the current election. When Obama said that he’ll take it as a “personal insult” if blacks don’t come out in large numbers to vote this fall, he was not just acknowledging that his legacy is on the line; he was also saying that things are so close that he’s got to make a personal plea to get Clinton over the line.
"If I hear anybody saying their vote does not matter, that it doesn't matter who we elect, read up on your history. It matters. We've got to get people to vote," Obama said to the CBC. "I will consider it a personal insult—an insult to my legacy—if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote."
That’s not just serious Obama—that’s not Obama the lecturer in chief or the dad in chief or the first black president. That’s Southside With You Obama putting his heart out there and hoping that it won’t get crushed.
He needs black voters to love, work for and vote for Hillary Clinton. Since the gala is a nonprofit, he couldn’t actually say, “Vote for Hillary Clinton,” but even the densest of black Bernie-or-bust folks heard him loud and clear.
If African-American millennials come out in large numbers and vote for Clinton, she wins. Then the black community gets to proudly grow old with Barack and Michelle Obama, with another 40-plus years of memes, Michelle Obama “slay” gifs and President Obama’s greatest speeches being put into a remix album by Willow Smith in 2018. (You know there’s more where this came from.)
If African Americans don’t come out to vote in large numbers for Clinton, then she will lose to Trump. If that happens, collectively the black community will have an incredibly awkward, too-embarrassed-to-make-eye-contact kind of relationship with Barack and Michelle Obama. President Obama knows that. He knows that for some black people, the shame of letting his legacy fall into the hands of a racist, unqualified charlatan like Donald Trump will be enough to get them to vote. The catch is, he wants to make sure they go out and vote for Clinton.
And if his speech last night was any indicator, he’s not ready to trust that black folks have gotten that message just yet.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.