President Barack Obama thanked Americans and praised them for making the country a “stronger place than when we started” during his farewell address Tuesday in Chicago. At the same time, he warned of risks to democracy that could tear apart the nation.
“Tonight it’s my turn to say thanks,” President Obama said at the opening of his speech. He said he was addressing all Americans and thanking them for making him a “better president and a better man.” He teared up later in his farewell address while thanking his wife for being a “role model” to a new generation, and said the thing he was most proud of was being a father to his two daughters.
Like much of his speech, these pleasant comments were said around grim warnings about the state of American democracy. “For every two steps forward it often feels we take one step back,” President Obama said. “Our youth and drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention mean that the future should be ours.”
“But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of the our people,” the president added. “That’s what I want to focus on tonight – the state of our democracy.”
President Obama laid out three threats to American democracy: everyone not having economic opportunity, poor race relations in America, politics ignoring facts and reason, and people taking democracy for granted.
The president laid opposing positive developments and negative ones for each of these threats. He said “the uninsured rate has never, ever been lower” and that “wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records.”
“But for all the real progress we’ve made, we know it’s not enough,” Obama added before calling for a greater social net and more taxes on the wealthy.
With regards to American race relations, he said, “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.”
President Obama acknowledged that despite the thoughts of some activists, “race relations are better than they were ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago.” He added that America isn’t where it should be and claimed Americans don’t benefit by not investing in the “children of immigrants” — since one day “those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.”
Obama said that enforcing anti-discrimination laws won’t be enough to better racial divisions but that “hearts must change.” Obama said that Americans are stuck in social bubbles and that this is related to his third threat to democracy. He bemoaned a society that talks “past each other” and ignores new information.
“Isn’t that part of what makes politics so dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?,” Obama said. He added that the American “spirit,” meaning a “faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might,” allowed the U.S. to “resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression.”
President Obama then made one of many thinly veiled shots at President-elect Donald Trump, and said it’s this spirit that makes him “reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.”
When speaking about how Americans should not take democracy for granted, Obama warned against writing off the “whole system as inevitably corrupt.”
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own,” Obama said. “We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make.”
President Obama closed as he started by praising Americans and telling them that if they get involved in politics, their “faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.”
“Mine sure has been,” Obama added. “That’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started.”
He closed by asking Americans to fold faith in the country’s founding documents and spirit, before adding, “Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Can.”