An older and grayer President Barack Obama returned home to Chicago on Tuesday night, not very far from where he launched his presidential campaign in 2007, to tell the US in his last speech while still in office, “We did it.”
“Yes, we did. Yes, we can,” he said concluding his nearly hour-long speech, reprising a signature campaign line and building on it to capture for history his audacity as an African American to aspire for the top office, and win. And win twice.
“Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004 (the Senate race), in 2008, 2012, maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off,” Obama said, “Let me tell you, you’re not the only ones.”
He turned towards his wife Michelle Obama in the audience then and teared up. “You took on a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own,” he said. As he spoke about her, he teared up some more, and so did Malia, their daughter.
To the nation, he said: Have faith, and hold fast to it.
“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’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours,” he said.
Quickly running through the achievements of his administration – ending recession, re-booting the auto industry, resumption of ties with Cuba, marriage equality and affordable healthcare – Obama segued to the present, and the future.
Many challenges remain, which American has the potential to meet, but only if, he said, “our democracy works”, in a barely concealed reference to the ultra-partisanship of current day politics and a bitterly contested toxic presidential election.
“A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism – these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well,” said the president.
And race specifically. Much remains to be done, he said. “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
Though he was quick to add much progress has been made compared to how race relations were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
Obama also pushed back against the strain of isolationism being pushed by president-elect Donald Trump and skepticism about climate change, and sought to remind the nation that immigrants always strengthened the nation, not weakened it.
He stressed the need for unity, understanding. “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighbourhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.
“The rise of naked partisanship, and 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.”
As someone who faced uncompromising opposition, bordering on hostility, from Republicans for most of his presidency, Obama called for politicians to be willing “to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter – then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible”.
Obama leaves office on January 20, the day Trump is inaugurated.