President Barack Obama delivered his final speech as President of the United States in Chicago’s McCormick Place, mere kilometres from Grant Park where he first spoke to millions of Americans as President-elect eight years ago.
In his speech, Obama at one point fought back tears. He urged Americans to hold on and defend the values the United States claims to uphold.
His message to his supporters was one of strong and ever-lasting optimism and that change in American politics must originate from the will of American electorate.
“I first came to Chicago when I was in my early twenties, still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life. It was in neighbourhoods not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss. This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.”
“After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea – our bold experiment in self-government.”
Obama also reflected on the overall course of American history and perceived progress.
“For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande, pushed women to reach for the ballot, powered workers to organize.”
“So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.”
But more importantly, and as the country struggles to heal from its most divisive election in history,
President Obama also spoke of the three challenges he sees facing the country and the health of its democracy.
He outlined economic disparity between the richest and poorest Americans, racial tensions, as well as a rise in partisanship that is entrenching sections of American society.
Obama on economic disparity
“Our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity. Today, the economy is growing again; wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are rising again; poverty is falling again. The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a ten-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in fifty years. And if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system – that covers as many people at less cost – I will publicly support it.”
Obama on racial tensions
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.”
“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. And our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.”
Obama on partisanship
“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.”_
“Politics is a battle of ideas; 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.”
He also used his last presidential address to reflect on his administration’s accomplishments.
“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history. If I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11. If I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens – you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”
“But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. 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.”
Obama also appeared to take a last swipe at Donald Trump when making the case for continued progress in tackling global warming. Trump is likely to be a strong advocate for the oil and gas industry.
He recently voiced his sympathy to Energy Transfer Partners the company attempting to build the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Trump has also previously stated he thought global warming is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese and in 2015 he admitted he does not believe in man-made global warming.
Obama signed the Paris climate agreement in 2016, seen by many as being a landmark treaty in ensuring global cooperation against climate change.
“But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”
“Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.”
In his closing statements Obama asked Americans to keep their faith in their own ability to enact change and to believe in the country’s ability to overcome adversity.
“It has been the honour of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain. For now, whether you’re young or young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President – the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.”
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours. I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Can.”
President-elect Trump will be inaugurated in Washington DC in nine days, Jan. 20.