WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, who became America’s first African-American president on a platform of hope and change, delivered a farewell speech Tuesday night full of optimism for the future as long as Americans are “anxious, jealous guardians of democracy.”
Delivering an impassioned defense of democracy, Obama said, “Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and 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 are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
“I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started,” Obama said. “You believe in a fair and just and inclusive America. You know that change has been America’s hallmark, that it is not something to to fear, it is something embrace.”
Speaking directly to young people he has met, the president said, “You will soon outnumber all of us and as a result I believe the future is in good hands.”
Although he won’t leave office until Jan. 20, Obama chose to make a farewell address in his hometown of Chicago that hearkened to his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention when as a young senator he called for the “audacity of hope” that “a brighter day will come.”
“This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and get engaged and come together to demand it,” he said. “It’s the beating heart of our American idea, our bold experiment in self-governing … that we the people through the instrument of our democracy can form a more perfect union. What a radical idea — the gift our founding fathers gave us.”
The speech comes as the country remains even more divided than when Obama took office after a bitter presidential election campaign and as President-elect Donald Trump vows to undo most of Obama’s legacy.
Obama promised a cooperative and peaceful transition to Trump — the one time he mentioned the Republican by name — just as Obama said President George W. Bush did for him. But without criticizing Trump or directly referencing the nasty, fractious campaign of last year, Obama called on all Americans to be better informed and better tempered.
At one point Obama tried to shut down shouts against Trump, saying, “No, no, no, no.” Then when the crowd, chanted, “Four more years!” he smiled and said, “I can’t do that.”
“You can tell that I’m a lame duck because no one is following instructions,” he joked.
He also also appeared to be heckled by opponents — the tickets were free and not by invitation — but he ignored the criticisms until they were quieted down.
“Politics is a battle of ideas,” he said. “But without some baseline of facts … and consideration that your opponent may be making a fair point and the science and reason matter, we will keep talking past each other and make compromise impossible … our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.”
“We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive … when we see some as more American than others,” he said.
“Because like my mama used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you,” he said.
Obama ends his two terms with among his highest job approval ratings, but with a mixed record that he noted Tuesday includes leading the country out of recession, saving the American auto industry and protecting Americans from terror attacks by organized groups on American soil.
But the economic recovery has left many middle-class Americans angry at a lack of job opportunity and wage growth and his protracted waging of wars he inherited and ramped-up use of drone attacks against terrorists has angered liberals.
Obama cried and used a handkerchief to wipe his tears as he thanked First Lady Michelle Obama and their two children.
“Girl of the South Side, for the past 25 years you have not only been my wife, and the mother of my children, you have been my best friend,” he said. “You took a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style and with good humor … a new generation stets its sights higher because you have been a role mode. You made me proud and you made the country proud.”
“It was a philosophical, policy, and personal address,” said Meena Bose, professor and director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American presidency at Hofstra University after the speech. “It was a message about change, work, and our enduring American democracy. Overall, a very positive and optimistic outlook for the United States, even as people continue to work to achieve American constitutional principles in practice.”