Obama Defends His Legacy As He Says Farewell: ‘Yes We Can. Yes We Did’
President Obama reflected on the achievements of his eight years in the White House on Tuesday night, telling supporters in his hometown of Chicago that they were instrumental in helping him boost the nation's economy, create his signature health care reform law and extend equal rights to more Americans.
"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.
"But that's what we did. That's what you did. You were the change. 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."
The roughly one-hour farewell address was replete with the kind of soaring, hopeful rhetoric that propelled a first-term, 47-year-old senator to the Oval Office eight years ago and got him re-elected four years ago. He reflected on his roots as community organizer and how the Windy City had shaped who he was as a man and as a public servant. And he grew emotional at points, especially when he thanked his wife, Michelle, daughters Sasha and Malia and Vice President Joe Biden.
"That faith I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change — that faith has been rewarded in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined. I hope yours has, too," the president said.
But Obama also acknowledged the country's deep divisions that have been exposed by a tumultuous election and defended the very foundations of democracy in the U.S. and abroad, just a week before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in.
"For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions," the president said. "The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste — all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's out there."
He added emphatically:
"This trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we'll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we'll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible."
It was the most direct allusion the president would make toward his successor and his supporters, coming the same day that stories broke that top U.S. intelligence officials had documents alleging collusion between Russia and the president-elect. Trump has denied those allegations.
Obama mentioned the incoming commander-in-chief by name only once, saying, "I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me." Obama quieted the crowd's boo's when he added, "In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy: The peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next."
But with Obama's later comments about the future of democracy, it was clear he had concerns about the president-elect's rhetoric on foreign adversaries, such as Russia, and throughout the campaign, especially against Muslim-Americans.
"Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. 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. That's why, for the past eight years, I've worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That's why we've ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That's why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans," Obama said, drawing a sustained standing ovation from the crowd.
"So let's be vigilant, but not afraid," the president continued. "ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors."
Obama reflected on his own historic place as the country's first African-American president, but admitted that his election did not do away with racial tensions — and that it never was going to.
"After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic," Obama said. "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."
Ultimately, the theme of Obama's speech was one encouraging all Americans — regardless of race, religion or political beliefs — to come together and focus on what unites them, rather than divides them.
"Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same," Obama said. "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."
Telling the county, "It has been the honor of my life to serve you," Obama said his service wasn't over and that he looked forward to contributing "as a citizen, for all my days that remain."
"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.
Obama ended with a familiar refrain, looking both back and ahead: "Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Can."