By Michelle Zacarias
President Barack Obama speaks at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address. | Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
On Tuesday January 10th, 2017 the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, bid the American people farewell. In an emotional speech covered live by People’s World, Obama began his opening remarks by thanking the general public for shaping his presidency and allowing him to push through the last eight years in office, “Every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.”
While he noted that his transition into office was met with many challenges, including the Great Recession and high unemployment rates, the president pointed out what he saw as some of his administration’s key accomplishments over the years. He spoke of success in opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, the national victory in marriage equality for LGBTQ couples, and passing the Affordable Care Act to insure millions of Americans.
The outgoing president also acknowledged Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration. He urged citizens to be open to the new transition of power, saying, “In ten days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy.” His remark was met with strong boos from the crowd, however, even as he told those assembled, “I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.” It was not the first time that the parting president has urged the public to give Trump a chance. Days after the election, Obama said he would withhold judgment about the Trump transition for the time being.
In his speech Tuesday night, Obama encouraged Americans to find a common purpose regardless of party affiliation so that they could continue to “meet the many challenges we still face.” Many progressives have been hoping for a stronger response by Obama to the bigoted and xenophobic rhetoric that Trump relied on throughout the campaign.
Obama repeatedly emphasized the importance of compromise for being able to move forward politically. The president called attention to the need for what he called “a new social compact,” which would guarantee education, labor’s right to organize, an updated social safety net, and “reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations.”
He argued that while voters may debate about how to best achieve such goals, he said they cannot be complacent about the goals themselves. “If we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.” He spoke to the widening partisan gap between the left and the right, as well as the apparent growth of racial tensions in the post-Ferguson period.
“For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face,” Obama remarked. “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 advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention and listen.”
The underlying purpose throughout Obama’s address seemed to be not only a continued embrace of the mantra of hope and change, but also to push supporters to step outside of their usual political comfort zone. Criticizing what he labeled “naked partisanship,” the president warned of the dangers of retreating into our own echo chambers. “Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” The president characterized such a mindset as a “threat to our democracy.”
For many, the Obama speech left them reassured and emboldened by the progress of the last eight years. Others may still have reason to feel unsettled about his legacy, one which includes the deportation of 2.5 million individuals – notably more people than any previous presidential administration, Democrat or Republican.
The Council on Foreign Relations also recently estimated that the U.S. military dropped 26,171 bombs during Obama’s last year in office, averaging 3 per hour, 24 hours per day. The majority of these fell predominantly on Muslim-majority countries.
While progressives can count many legislative victories over the years of the Obama administration, critiques remain that a tendency to compromise for the sake of bipartisanship, combined with the perpetual obstruction from a Republican-dominated congress, might have limited the pace of progress.
Regardless of the many barriers faced over the last eight years, one particular theme during Obama’s speech lingered, “We were the change.” With the Trump presidency quickly approaching, it would be easy for the country to retreat into nostalgia over better days, but instead, Obama called for mobilization and action.
In the final moments of his speech, he credited every individual – man, woman, child, organizer – for the progress the nation has achieved during his presidency. “You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
With his parting words, President Obama left the country with phrases that have been familiar since his first campaign in 2008: “Yes, we did. Yes, we can.”