I remember standing at my desk on a November night a little more than eight years ago, looking up in disbelief at the television perched above my head.
Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters were walking onto a stage in Grant Park in Chicago after his election as president of the United States. I really hadn’t thought it would happen, but there he was. And he started talking about how change had come to America and that the road would be long, but he was never more hopeful than he was that night that the country would get there.
So it was more than a little poignant that Obama walked onto another Chicago stage Tuesday night, barely a week before he will exit the presidential arena, and he still was talking about the long road to change and expressing his optimism that America will get there.This was not a valedictory of his two terms. Yes, he spent a little time touting his accomplishments, the equivalent of a verbal paragraph or two. He’s entitled to that. But Obama’s farewell address really was a speech about the future.
And it was a bit of a cautionary tale as he veered back and forth between his innate optimism and his worry about what comes next. His concerns were not rooted in what might happen to his policies and achievements, but what might happen to America’s greatest success — its democracy. And he reminded us again that we have not had as eloquent an explainer or as passionate a defender of our precious form of government. As much as his rhetoric soared, it also was a grim reminder that we’re not going to hear this kind of speech for a while.
Obama touched on the big problems that undermine democracy — lingering racism, intolerance of ideas, denigration of those we disagree with, lack of economic opportunity, hearts that must change, the inability of many to see the world from another’s point of view, the ease with which we’ve retreated into our own bubbles.
It was neither partisan nor polarizing, though some will take it that way. That’s always the way it’s been with Obama.
Democracy, he warned, “can buckle when it gives in to fear. Just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values of what makes us who we are.”
Our strength, he said, was our common identity, our shared beliefs, and the antidote to what threatens us is to embrace the “joyous task we’ve been given” to be active citizens. Get involved, he implored, in a simple and moving request: “Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
I have no idea what’s going to unfold in the years ahead, but I know what we’re going to miss. We’ll miss Obama’s intelligence and his eloquence. We’ll miss his class and dignity and sense of calm. We’ll miss his willingness to share his emotions as he did Tuesday night, when he spoke about his love for Michelle, his daughters and Vice President Joe Biden.
And we’ll miss his unyielding faith in our young people. He saved them for last, urging them to “hitch your wagons to something bigger than yourself.” He talked about seeing them in action in his years as president. And in remarking that soon they will outnumber the rest of the country, he found comfort. “I believe the future of America is in good hands,” he said.
It was light and hope and change, offered to a nation that needs that just as much now as it did eight years ago.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.