President Obama delivered his final speech as POTUS on Tuesday to a lively crowd of 2,000 who witnessed his remarks in person, and millions more watching from home. A tradition that dates all the way back to George Washington, the farewell address has often been used as a moment to reflect on a president's tenure, while also looking to the challenges that lie ahead. And Obama did just that, highlighting his achievements over the past eight years before focusing the lion's share of his speech on the tenuous state of our democracy. Calling out threats to stability by name, Obama emphasized the need for understanding and solidarity across all divisions. Being the first black president of the United States, Obama's insistence that we are more united than divided gives his words added historic weight.
Coming on the heels of a close and bitterly-fought election, Obama made the case for unity. It was a boldly gracious move, especially considering that he and his party have often been the explicit target of far less conciliatory treatment from the president-elect. Yet Obama seemed focused on a much larger picture: the ability of our democratic system to not only survive, but thrive, despite the multitude of challenges against it. These are ten of the most timely and moving lines from Obama's speech.
Chicago Is The Place That Shaped Obama's Political Outlook
Obama's reflection on how his early years in Chicago helped shape his understanding of America was more than just personal backstory. It formed the underlying argument for what would be a theme throughout the speech: his continued optimism in America, despite seeming setbacks, a lesson he learned from his organization efforts in Chicago.
Americans' Constitutional Rights Affirmed, As Well As Our Role In Defending Them
Again, Obama prefaced at the beginning of his speech what he later introduced as his main topic: the state of our democracy. Our rights are fundamental and inalienable in an abstract sense; but it is the duty of citizens to ensure they are upheld.
The Historic Scope And Breadth Of American Sacrifice
Obama argued that the unifying theme underlying such diverse historic acts of courage was a felt duty and desire to participate in our democracy. On multiple occasions throughout Obama's speech, he extolled the virtuous role of the "citizen" — in all its iterations.
Despite Setbacks, America Remains Exceptional
This was an unapologetically patriotic speech. Obama maintained, time and again, that progress has been made, that this is a great country, even given the way many currently feel. On a message of hope he came into office, and it seems Obama wanted to leave on the same uplifting note.
Economic Anxiety And Inequality Are Threats To Democracy
That people are less likely to engage in, or trust at all, the political system when they feel cheated by it makes perfect sense. And right now, there is a tremendous amount of bitterness on both sides about what is often viewed as a "rigged" system. This is anathema to civic engagement and good governance.
Racial Tension Listed As Another Threat To Stability
Obama criticized the way many issues have been "framed," as a "zero-sum game" between whites and other minority groups. He rightly pointed out that our failure to provide all Americans - especially the young - with learning and career possibilities will be devastating to us all.
Political Echo Chambers Have Got To Go
Laying blame on both sides, Obama challenged Americans to get outside their own curated comfort zone, and engage with people of different political stripes.
Ideas & Facts Matter, And They Should Override Partisanship & Spin
The deluge of "fake news" and the insistence, on the part of some media surrogates, that certain facts are actually just debatable opinions has poisoned civil discourse. Logical argument is the name of the game for any healthy democracy, and America needs to rediscover her commitment to reason over rank partisanship.
We Still Have Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself
Obama spoke of the fear many have of terrorism, and how that fear is sometimes directed towards innocent and peaceful fellow citizens. "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." Referencing the great contributions of diverse waves of immigrants, he pleaded with Americans to respect different religious views as well, highlighting Muslims in particular.
President Obama ended the formal part of his speech by calling on all Americans to get involved in the political process, to hit the pavement and make a personal stand. He emphasized again that this is the responsibility entailed in the "highest office" - that of citizen. I'd encourage everyone to read the full transcript, as his article highlights just a small sampling of Obama's most poignant remarks.