In his nearly hour-long farewell address Tuesday evening in Chicago at McCormick Place, President Barack Obama recounted his eight years in office with his customary grace and dignity. While he mentioned President-elect Donald Trump only once by name, the massive audience was attuned to his nuances and the subtleties that alluded to the incoming president.
Each time he mentioned democracy—and it must have been said at least 20 times—there was an outcry from the crowd, and it was hard not to reflect on the recent presidential election when he said we must “expand democracy, and human rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights—no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem.
“For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression,” he continued. “If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.” Those words had meaning, too, in a domestic context.
He may not have been thinking of Trump when he recalled the nation’s glorious past, that spirit—“a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression,” but for many Americans, some of whom will be protesting the arrival of the new administration, the words must have had a special resonance.
And unless you just crawled from under a rock you may have missed his inference when he said we must “reject discrimination against Muslim Americans.” It drew a long-standing ovation from listeners. The president embellished this comment by noting, “For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.” Comments made against immigrants were said by the same president-elect who also mocked the disabled.
As with all of Obama’s speeches over the past eight years, Black Americans were listening to see how he would deal with race. Usually, he framed the race question in a general fashion, careful not to specify Black Americans. But this time there was no skirting, no fancy dancing. “After my election,” he said of the victory in 2008, “there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago—you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.”
Over the course of his administration, whenever Obama discussed Black Americans he found it expedient to include other groups. Here’s an example from his farewell address: “For Blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggle for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change.”
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; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our founders promised.”
A few of those founders were unavoidable in a farewell speech. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were invoked, and there may have been a moment or two of Abe Lincoln, and a tad of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, particularly when he talked about losing democracy when we buckle into fear.
There was another loud outburst and great approval when he said, “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you,” and that approval was also reflected in the latest polls for him which registered at more than 50 percent. “Four more years!” someone in the crowd screamed. “Sorry, can’t do that,” the president replied with his characteristic grin.
At the close he returned to the theme of democracy and also to memories of his political development not too far from where he was speaking.
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents,” he said before directing his love and admiration to his family, especially Michelle and the Bidens, “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. Yes We Did.”
Indeed, he and we did.