With fewer than 10 days left in his eight-year presidency, Obama returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago Tuesday to say farewell, tout his accomplishments in bringing “change” to America and offer his “hopeful” vision for its future.
He also warned that America “has more work to do” on the “divisive” issue of race, and he claimed no foreign terrorist organization has successfully attacked America while he was in the White House.
Obama gave the Tuesday address standing in front of a massive American flag and before a crowd of up to 20,000 people at McCormick Place, the same downtown convention center where he declared his election night victory over GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Tickets to the event reportedly sold for as much as $5,000 on eBay and Craigslist. Aides said Obama prepared for the farewell speech for months.
“My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well-wishes we’ve received over the past few weeks,” Obama told the crowd. “But tonight it’s my turn to say thanks. Whether we’ve seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people – in living rooms and schools; at farms and on factory floors; at diners and on distant outposts – are what have kept me honest, kept me inspired, and kept me going. Every day, I learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.”
About half-way through his speech, Obama declared that visions of a “post-racial America” following his election were “never realistic.”
“[R]ace remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20 or 30 years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.
“But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do. After all, 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. And our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.”
Obama said America must uphold laws against discrimination in hiring, housing, education and the justice system.
[L]aws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
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.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.
Obama said Americans “have to try harder,” even though, for too many people, “it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles” in neighborhoods, college campuses, churches, social media and other venues with people who hold the same political beliefs.
“[I]ncreasingly, 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,” he said.
Obama also claimed “no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years.”
“Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform, and the intelligence officers, law enforcement and diplomats who support them, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years; and although Boston and Orlando remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever,” he said. “We’ve taken out tens of thousands of terrorists – including Osama bin Laden. The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders, and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed, and no one who threatens America will ever be safe.”
But safeguarding Americans’ way of life takes more than a robust military, he asserted.
Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans.
That’s why we cannot withdraw from global fights – to expand democracy, and human rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights – no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism 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.
So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world – unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.
Obama said “America is exceptional,” not because it’s flawless but “we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.”
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.
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 promised his administration would “ensure the smoothest possible transition” of power for the incoming president.
Then the president turned to his main theme: “the state of our democracy.”
“There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times. 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. 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. In other words, it will determine our future.
“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 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 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. That, after all, is why we serve – to make people’s lives better, not worse.”
But Obama said all the “progress” under his administration is 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,” he said. “But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles. While the top one percent 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 health care 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.
“There are no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree that our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. t will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”
Obama called on Americans to forge a new social compact guaranteeing children a quality education, allowing workers to unionize and demand higher wages, giving Americans a “social safety net” and reforming the tax code.
“For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”
A new Quinnipiac University survey shows Obama’s performance approval rating at 55 percent, his highest score in seven years. But a Pew Research survey revealed that Obama leaves the presidency with the nation more divided than at any time in decades, race relations at a new low and a surge in atheism.
As he leaves office, the fate of Obama’s signature legislation, Obamacare, is uncertain. Incoming President Donald Trump is determined to reverse many of Obama’s executive actions. And the Democratic Party has suffered a devastating election blow while Republicans now have control of Congress and the White House.
Just before his big speech, Obama said he takes two major things away from his experience as president:
- Change can happen. The system will respond to ordinary people coming together to try to move the country in a better direction.
- The fundamental goodness of the American people, all of whom are pouring their heart and soul into making their communities work better, supporting their families, moving this country forward, keeping us safe. It gives you a lot of confidence about our prospects for the future.
Just last week, several Hollywood celebrities and others said farewell to Obama in the following tribute video: