In Chicago to give his final address as president of the United States, Barack Obama noted that after his election “there was talk of a post-racial America” — but “such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic.”
“Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” Obama said to a crowd of about 18,000 at McCormick Place, adding that race relations “are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.”
“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, 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.”
Before quoting Atticus Finch on walking in another man’s shoes, Obama said “hearts must change,” but “social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change.”
“For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change. We have to pay attention and listen,” he continued.
“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; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”
The president added another message for “native-born Americans”: “It means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.”
“So regardless of the station we occupy, we all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do, that they value hard work and family just like we do, that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
Obama acknowledged that “politics is a battle of ideas; that’s how our democracy was designed,” yet cautioned that “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.”
“…How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”
Much of the farewell address repeated Obama’s favorite stump issues: killing Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal, opening relations with Cuba, the auto industry bailout, the imminent destruction of ISIS, the quest to close Guantanamo.
He warned that the post-World War II order “is now being challenged — first, by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently, by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets in open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.”
“…Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.”
The president cautioned the country that the “sacred ties” of which George Washington spoke are weakened “when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service.”
“So coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others,” he said. “When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
Obama rallied the crowd to participate in the political process. “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life,” he said. “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.”
He reserved the end of the speech for paying tribute to first lady Michelle Obama — “you took on a role you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style, and good humor” — and daughters Malia and Sasha, who “wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily.” It was at this point that the president began to dab away tears.
Of Vice President Joe Biden: “You were the first decision I made as a nominee, and it was the best. Not just because you have been a great vice president, but because in the bargain I gained a brother.”
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours,” Obama said in his final words to the country. “I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) swiftly issued a statement declaring Obama “belongs among the greatest presidents in American history.”
“President Obama and Vice President Biden have earned their place in the pantheon of American democracy,” Pelosi said. “Every American can be proud of the leadership and dignity the Obamas and the Bidens brought to the White House.”