Even after a vicious election and amidst a divided nation, President Barack Obama offered the same simple yet unwavering message that has carried his political career for almost a decade: “Yes we can.”
In his farewell speech just days before president-elect Donald Trump takes office, Obama delivered an impassioned defense of his presidency while offering an optimistic vision for the future, urging his supporters to continue the fight for progress. After detailing the successes of his term, from marriage equality and ending the great recession to killing Osama bin Laden, he pointedly argued for continued hope in the face of political uncertainty.
The success of his administration should encourage scores of young people, he argued, not to stay silent or remain discouraged, but to continue the fight for progress.
“I know our work has not only helped so many Americans,” Obama said. “It has inspired so many Americans, especially so many young people out there, to believe you can make a difference, to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.”
Speaking just miles from where he began his political career in the South Side of Chicago, Obama began his remarks by discussing how the Windy City shaped his belief in the power of people.
“It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss,” Obama said. “This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.”
The same optimistic vision for the nation that carried Obama throughout his eight years in office, even amidst such intense political partisanship, seemed to give him hope today that people can truly change the world.
“After eight years as your President, I still believe that.”
For much of his speech, Obama discussed the various ways the nation has moved forward during his presidency, before delving into the need to fight more to continue progress. Discussing racial inequalities, for example, Obama noted the progress the nation has made, while acknowledging the need to do more.
“We’re not where we need to be,” he said.
He then framed the continued fight for social justice as one that will help all Americans.
“If we're unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants just because they don't look like us,” Obama said, “we will diminish the prospects of our own children because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America's workforce.”
Alluding to the post-election discussion concerning the white working-class, he also recognized the need to focus on economic opportunity not just for minorities and marginalized communities, but for “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 economic, cultural and technological change.”
Obama’s nostalgic message of hope and equality brought thousands to their feet at McCormick Place, the same venue where the president celebrated victory in the 2012 election. Roughly 18,000 supporters filled the convention center hall to get a view of the President just miles away from where he began his political career.
“It’s kind of exactly what America, especially his supporters, needed to hear,” said Medill sophomore Adam Yates. “To me, it was harkening back to his original speeches which were so filled with hope and people’s ability to make change.”
Obama notably highlighted two policy initiatives that he could focus on in his new life as a private citizen: climate change and voting rights. As he did throughout much of his roughly hour-long speech, he listed his administration’s successes combating climate change before then urging continued action on the issue.
“Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change,” he told the ecstatic crowd.
SESP senior Tamar Eisen attended the speech and enjoyed Obama’s focus on getting young people involved in the political process.
“I found the speech to be both motivating and comforting, as he really spoke about unity and bringing America together,” Eisen said.
Obama took the stage one last time as president to the rousing U2 anthem “City of Blinding Lights.” And it was just minutes into his speech before he was interrupted by chants of “four more years.”
Beyond reminding American voters of the progress they’ve made and the fights they ought to continue, Obama thanked his family, Vice President Joe Biden and his staff for their continued love, dedication and support. His kind words for First Lady Michelle Obama, as he described her as a role model who exemplifies “grace and grit and style and good humor,” received perhaps the loudest cheers of the night.
Alumni from both Obama campaigns and his administration comprised much of the crowd, many of whom traveled into the area to support their former boss, almost a decade to date after he first announced his seemingly improbable run for the presidency.
And while many members of the so-called Obama orbit began their political careers seeing a young community organizer-turned politician from Chicago preach of the power of hope and the ability of the American people to come together and bring about change, now-President Obama ended his administration in a similar vein.
“I am asking you to believe,” Obama said. “Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”