- REUTERS/John Gress
President Barack Obama delivered an emotional farewell address on Tuesday night, building on the earliest themes of his candidacy in his final major planned speech as president.
“You were the change,” Obama said in front of a Chicago audience. “You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
He ended his speech with a similar campaign echo: “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”
Obama appeared to tear up while thanking his wife and family toward the end of his address, during which he touted the results of his tenure, noting the lower unemployment rate and millions of new recipients of health insurance covered under the Affordable Care Act, among other achievements.
But as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office in 10 days, Obama warned of foreign and domestic threats to American democracy, raising the threats of terrorism, economic inequality, and climate change.
“A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism – these forces haven’t just tested our security and prosperity but our democracy as well,” Obama said. “And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland.”
“For all the real progress we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles. While the top 1% has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind – the laid-off factory worker, the waitress and healthcare worker who struggle to pay the bills – convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful – a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”
Race also stood out as major themes of the final speech from the US’s first African-American president.
Obama said race relations were far better than in the country’s recent history but emphasized the need to uphold housing and hiring antidiscrimination laws, among other civil-rights protections.
“After my election, there was talk of a postracial America,” Obama said. “Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
He added: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.”
- Scott Olson/Getty Images
Obama offered a message for white Americans and minorities, citing “To Kill a Mockingbird” protagonist Atticus Finch as a model of empathy.
“For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.
“For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s, that when minority groups voice discontent they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness, that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment our founders promised.”
Similarly, Obama warned against a stratified media environment that encouraged partisanship, a problem he hoped to transcend when initially elected in 2008.
“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,” Obama said. “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.
“In the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”
The crowd embraced the president’s speech, at one point repeatedly chanting, “Four more years.”
“I can’t do that,” Obama said, laughing.
The president delivered remarks with an uplifting tone that avoided direct clashes with Trump personally, but he championed a message of diversity that contrasted with Trump’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric.
Indeed, Obama shut down some jeers in the crowd when the president mentioned the transition of power to Trump.
“No, no, no,” Obama said when the audience began to boo.
He added: “I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”
Still, the president’s speech at times offered a direct rebuttal to the president-elect’s campaign message and themes.
He appeared to allude to Trump’s previous plan to bar Muslims from entering the US, saying Islamic extremist groups “cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.” He also warned against “giving up what we stand for” and becoming more like the global powers Russia and China.
The speech capped weeks of a White House publicity campaign celebrating the president’s legacy.
In a Medium post last week, the president reflected on the beginning of his first term, including the dire economic environment he inherited when he took office in 2009 amid the financial collapse.
“In the depths of that winter, on January 20, 2009, I stood before you and swore a sacred oath,” Obama wrote. “I told you that day that the challenges we faced would not be met easily or in a short span of time – but they would be met. And after eight busy years, we’ve met them - because of you.”
George Washington was the first president to deliver a farewell address, releasing a textual farewell at the end of his second term.
Though each president has tended to craft his address in his own mold, outgoing presidents have occasionally used the speech to offer a warning. Dwight Eisenhower cautioned the public against the creeping influence of the military-industrial complex, the relationship between the military and the private weapons, equipment, and contracting enterprises granted enormous contracts by the Department of Defense.
Obama eschewed the traditional Oval Office setting for the address, opting for a hometown rally in Chicago, where he delivered his 2008 and 2012 victory speeches.