The Obama farewell wasn’t a funeral. Far from it. In fact, it was a revival.
At the close of a historic two-term presidency, as the nation’s first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama had one last benevolent act: to remind the country not to give up on hope or the belief that it could create change.
Despite the enthusiastic cheering from the audience at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center Tuesday evening, many attendees couldn’t hold back their tears as President Obama reminded them of what’s happened during his tenure, and just how far we’ve all come—together.
“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history … if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot and take out the mastermind of 9/11 … if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens—you might have said our sights were set a little too high,” Obama said.
“But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change,” he continued. “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.”
His farewell speech went far beyond a full accounting of what he’s accomplished in office. Being true to his roots as both a lawyer and law professor, and as a community organizer, President Obama reminded Americans of the power and potential of a democracy where people choose to participate, as well as a commentary on how history has led to the current state of our politics.
“Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles,” Obama said, eventually pivoting to issues of racism and prejudice. “There’s a second threat to our democracy—one as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic … we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do.”
In order to change the tide, Obama said, laws must be upheld against discrimination in all aspects of everyday life and in how government functions, in addition to changing hearts and minds, and bridging gaps of understanding of people in various other identity groups.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of paper. It has no power on its own,” he told the crowd. “We, the people, give it power—with our participation and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms.”
For a president and campaigner long known for his command of public speaking, one who retains impeccable poise and controlled delivery, he remained unflappable in this emotionally charged moment—from when he took the stage and for almost an entire hour—until he had to pause and shed a few tears in gratitude for first lady Michelle Obama.
The audience rang out into its largest midspeech cheer of the night—while many others present cried along with him.
“Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side—for the past 25 years, you’ve been not only my wife and mother of my children but my best friend. You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor,” he said. “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You’ve made me proud. You’ve made the country proud.”
After acknowledging and thanking both of his daughters, Malia and Sasha, and Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden, as well as many former campaign staffers and White House staffers, Obama turned his attention back to America. To thank them, just one more time—one final time as the president.
“For now, whether you’re young or young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president—the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours,” he said. “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”