“Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”
With these words, President Obama wrapped up the farewell remarks of his presidency with the same soaring rhetoric of hope that he rode into the White House eight years ago.
He took the opportunity of the speech to a crowd in his adopted hometown of Chicago to thank to the American people for the opportunity to serve as president for two terms.
“Every day, I learned from you,” he said. “You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.”
He made mention of some of his key accomplishments and thanked those who have stood by his side through the past eight years, especially his family, for which he offered an emotional tribute, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and the military.
But Obama, who spoke to a crowd of approximately 18,000, according to the White House, also used the speech to issue a warning about the fragility of democracy. He specifically identified race relations, income inequality and the state of political discourse as threats to the fabric of the republic.
On the issue of race, Obama acknowledged the significant progress that’s been made in recent decades but said that it remains an often “divisive force in our society” and noted there was an unrealistic idea after his election that we had entered a “postracial America.”
“If we’re going to be serious about race, going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system. That’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change,” Obama said.
“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 — not only the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American but 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,” Obama said.
“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,” he continued.
He warned that “stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideas.”
“While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our 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. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics,” he said.
Obama scolded a tendency in modern political discourse that encourages partisanship and divisions over compromise.
“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 might be making a fair point and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”
In giving a final speech, Obama continued in a tradition started by George Washington in 1796 and followed by many outgoing presidents since. President George W. Bush gave a farewell speech eight years ago from the East Room of the White House.
By JORDYN PHELPS