President Obama’s farewell speech was in keeping with the tone of his presidency — optimistic, inspiring, and inclusive.
Throughout the speech tonight at Chicago’s McCormick Place, he touted the progress of the past eight years as not only achievements of his administration, but achievements of the American people.
“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, 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; if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high,” he said early on, with particularly big applause coming for the mention of marriage equality.
“But that's what we did. That's what you did. You were the change. The answer to people's hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
When he referred to the “hallmark of our democracy” coming in 10 days — the inauguration of a new president — some in the crowd of thousands began to boo, but Obama discouraged them. “I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me,” he said. “Because it's up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”
But without mentioning Donald Trump further, Obama gave a speech that was in many ways a counterpoint to Trump’s often-divisive rhetoric. The outgoing president called for “decency” and a willingness to engage with people who have different viewpoints. “Understand democracy does not require uniformity,” Obama said. “Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we're all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”
We should resist any attempt to divide any group of Americans from the rest, he said. Some of his biggest applause came when he said that preserving democracy is “why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are” — a group that was demonized by Donald Trump and many of his supporters during the presidential campaign.
“That's why we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women's rights and LGBT rights,” Obama continued. “No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that's part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”
He acknowledged that race remains a divisive issue, and the idea that his presidency would usher in a post-racial America was always unrealistic. But he added, “I've lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.”
But more work needs to be done, he said, not just upholding antidiscrimination laws but changing hearts and minds. “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves,” he said.
He called on blacks and other minority groups to empathize with “not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he's got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.”
He called for whites to recognize “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; when they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”
And he urged native-born Americans to remember “that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn't weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation's creed, and this nation was strengthened.”
Obama implored his audience to participate in democracy — to vote, to volunteer, to run for office, not to lose trust in the system but help change it. We weaken democracy, he said, “when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy,” he continued. “Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.”
“Citizen,” he went on. “So, you see, that's what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there's an election, not just when you own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
Toward the end of his speech, Obama received standing ovations for mentions of his wife, Michelle; daughters, Sasha and Malia; and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. He then promised he will still work for the American people “as a citizen, for all my remaining days.” And before being played off by Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” he closed by invoking his signature slogan:
“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.”
Read an annotated transcript from The Washington Post here, or watch the full speech below.