U.S. President Obama's farewell address focuses on accomplishment

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

United States President Barack Obama gave his official farewell address on Tuesday night from McCormick Place in Chicago, reflecting on personal and national accomplishments. This is expected to be his last major speech before officially handing the reins to president-elect Donald Trump on January 20.

President Barack Obama in 2010.
Image: John Kees.
Barack Obama "Its why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan – and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well." Barack Obama

Obama's speech was wide-ranging. He thanked his family and the nation, spoke of the need for unity, noted the country's accomplishments and need for improvement in areas like education and civil rights, and spoke about the need for pride in U.S. accomplishments, citing milestones of U.S. history and of his presidency specifically. "It's why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan – and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well."

The president also addressed his country's troubled history with race and racism, an issue many black citizens feel he has avoided. Despite this, Chauncy Devega of Salon described the president as "a role model of calm, cool reflective black masculinity: a man utterly at home in his own skin." Obama described the concept of a post-racial U.S. "unrealistic" and particularly cited the need for reform in education and the criminal justice system and greater acceptance of scientific evidence, particularly evidence supporting action to counteract climate change.

However, publications including The Washington Post and Salon have given particular focus to another aspect of the president's address: the country's increasing political tensions and controversies involving access to news and information, both accurate and inaccurate. "We become so secure and our bubbles," said Obama, "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," calling this trend "a third threat to our democracy."

The Washington Post characterized Obama's comment, "If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves," as a "not-so-subtle jab" at the campaign tactics of President-elect Donald Trump. The Telegraph describes Obama's warnings about the need to protect democracy as "a thinly veiled slight to the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump's election campaign, which included attacks on Muslims, the disabled, women and immigrants." The president went on to call on the public to "reject the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties that make us one America. We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive [...] We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them. It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy."

Despite this, when the mention of Donald Trump brought boos from the crowd, Obama reiterated the importance of the long history of peaceful transfers of power from one president to the next: "No no no no no. [...] I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me." However, this was not unaccompanied by a call to action. Near the end of the speech, he insisted citizens dissatisfied with elected officials should "lace up your shoes, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself."

Overall, the departing president's speech focused on accomplishment, echoing the "Yes we can" slogan from his 2008 campaign: "If I have 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, take out the mastermind of 9/11[...] If I had told you that we would win a marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another twenty million of our fellow citizens. If I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that's what we did."

But when the crowd began shouting "Four more years! Four more years!" Obama, with a small laugh, answered, "I can't do that."

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