Popular and politically humbled, President Barack Obama said goodbye to the nation Tuesday night, declaring during his farewell address that he hasn’t abandoned his vision of progressive change but warning that it now comes with a new set of caveats.
His voice at moments catching with emotion, Obama recounted his presidency that saw setbacks as well as successes. Admitting candidly that political discourse has soared under his watch, Obama demanded that Americans renew efforts at reconciliation.
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy,” the President said. “To embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually to try to improve this great nation of ours.”
“Democracy does not require uniformity,” Obama said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
In a concession that, for now, his brand of progressive politics is stalled in Washington, Obama has admitted “for every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”
He implored his backers to be vigilant in protecting basic American values he warned could come under siege.
“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” he said. “So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”
And he warned against turning inward, telling Democrats that only by involving themselves in a real political discourse could they hope to renew the hopeful vision he brought to the White House eight years ago.
As he spoke before a rowdy crowd of supporters, Obama was interrupted often with screams of “I Love you Obama.” When a protester holding a “Pardon All of Us” sign, chants of “four more years” drowned out the shouts.
He recognized his successor Donald Trump, saying he was committed to a peaceful transition of power. But he warned that going forward Democrats shouldn’t fall in line with their commander-in-chief.
Obama called on African-Americans and minorities to view with empathy “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 the economic, cultural and technological change.”
In coming to Chicago, Obama hoped to capitalize on a well of goodwill that’s expanded in the final year of his tenure. He discarded the staid Oval Office or East Room for his last formal set of remarks, choosing instead the city where his political rise began and where he declared victory in 2008 and 2012.
Over the past several weeks, Obama has offered a rational view of Trump’s election and rarely let on to any apprehension about his future as an ex-president. First lady Michelle Obama has articulated a more candid view in a scaled-back version of her own farewell. She sat for an hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey, frankly admitting that Democrats were now “feeling what not having hope feels like.”