Obama calls for unity in farewell speech, reiterates ‘Yes we can’

11 Jan 2017


In his highly anticipated, prime-time farewell from his adopted hometown of Chicago, President Barack Obama on Tuesday issued a call to the nation for more civic engagement and a rejection of cynicism, declaring that despite yielding to an untested successor amid deep political polarisation, he is "even more optimistic about this country" as he prepares to leave office.

Speaking before an enthusiastic, capacity crowd of 20,000 inside a downtown convention centre, just blocks from his 2008 victory rally in Grant Park, the president told Americans "it has been the honour of my life to serve you" and insisted his public service will continue, "as a citizen, for all my remaining days".

Obama delivered a soaring, campaign-style speech in which he outlined his accomplishments, thanked his supporters and gave emotional shout-outs to his staff and his family. Yet he also acknowledged he's leaving office with important business unfinished. And he delivered a sharp diagnosis of the body politic, tacitly describing a range of factors that led the nation to choose President-elect Donald Trump, a controversial businessman and novice politician, as his successor.

Comparing his vision with a conflicting national mood that swept the celebrity billionaire and reality TV star into office, Obama called on the country to unite in the hard work of overcoming seemingly intractable divisions on a range of issues that threaten democracy: income inequality, racial strife, xenophobia, economic anxiety and hyperpartisan politics.

"Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes, it has been bloody," Obama said. "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."

Framed as his chance to say goodbye to the nation as he exits the political stage, Obama reportedly began working on the speech during his vacation in Hawaii last month with Cody Keenan, his chief speechwriter. Obama began reviewing the final draft on the flight home less than two weeks ago, and spent time polishing it early this week, according to US News and World Report.

His exit, however, comes amid a series of stark contrasts for the president and his party – not the least of which is the looming inauguration of Trump, by all appearances his temperamental and philosophical opposite.

Though Obama made history as the nation's first black president and leaves office with an approval rating well above 50 per cent, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' presidential nominee and Obama's anointed successor, despite controversies that would have torpedoed most presidential candidates. She won the popular vote by a margin of around 3 million, but he prevailed in the Electoral College, and is set to enter the White House as perhaps the most unpopular president-elect in recent history.

Although Obama won the White House twice, Republicans crushed Democrats in two consecutive midterm elections; aside from yielding power to the GOP in both houses of Congress, the president's party now holds fewer seats in statehouses and governor's offices than they did when he was first elected in 2008.

And despite the fact that he made his bones as a political organiser and surged to the Oval Office in part on grass-roots clout, some critics in Obama's own party blame him for not doing more to prevent the political erosion.

Still, this night belonged to Obama, and to the emotional crowd he addressed – some of whom waited hours in sub-freezing temperatures for free tickets to his final speech as commander-in-chief. During the hour-long remarks, the president was interrupted by applause and shouts of "We love you!" several times, and at one point the crowd chanted, "Four more years!"

"No, no," he demurred. "I can't do that."

Tying his improbable political journey to Chicago – the place where he found himself as a young man, taught constitutional law and delivered victory speeches after winning office in 2008 and 2012 – the president's last opportunity to make a broad, public case for his administration was equal parts valedictory, call to political action and sentimental journey.

Holding back emotion and spurring ovations from the crowd, Obama thanked his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden, whom he said was the best choice for the job and had become like a brother to him.

He quoted George Washington, the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch and Ann Dunham, his late mother. He resurrected his philosophy of hope over fear and the need to embrace change, themes that propelled his two presidential campaigns. He held up young people as a force for good in the future – a frequent thesis of speeches he delivered to university students at home and abroad. He reprised his then-ubiquitous 2008 campaign slogan: "Yes we can".
Obama also outlined his successes, including the Affordable Care Act and the rescue of the auto industry, as well as his administration's climate change agreement with dozens of other countries and the nuclear deal with Iran – a national security achievement that, Obama said, happened "without firing a shot".

Nevertheless, it was his call to politically engage in democracy and public service, coupled with an unspoken contrast between his administration and Trump's administration-in-waiting, that was the dominant theme of the speech.

"In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy" – the crowd interrupted him with boos, which the president discouraged – "the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next," Obama said. Though he will make the transition smooth for Trump as former President George W Bush did for him, Obama said, "It's up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face."

Despite policies that helped America recover from an economic crisis, with Wall Street booming and wages rising, "our democracy won't work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity", Obama said.

"Stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea," Obama said. "While the top 1 per cent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and rural counties have been left behind."

They are "convinced that the game is fixed against them", the president said, harnessing a major Trump campaign theme to prove his point. "That their government only serves the interests of the powerful. That's a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics."

Racial strife, "as old as our nation itself", presents another threat, Obama said.

"After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America," he said. "Such a vision, however, well-intended, was never realistic," and race remains "a potent and often divisive force" that further erodes confidence in democracy.

Although "I've lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago," the work of forging mutual understanding between blacks and whites is urgent and necessary, the president said.

"If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves," he said. "If we're unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don't look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America's workforce."

And while politics "is a battle of ideas", the political discourse has gotten out of whack, and demonisation has replaced debate, Obama said: "Without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we're going to keep talking past each other. And we'll make common ground and compromise impossible."

Ultimately, "our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted," the president said. "When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote," curb the influence of money in politics and hold elected leaders to a high standard of "transparency and ethics in public service."

"All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging," Obama said.

Participation by every citizen "is what our democracy demands. It needs you," Obama said. "Not just when there's an election, not just when your 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. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in.

"Sometimes you'll win. Sometimes you'll lose," the president continued. "Presuming a reservoir of goodness, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this ... and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed."

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