In his final speech as president, Barack Obama was again the unifier and the gifted orator who invigorated voters in 2008, telling an adoring Chicago crowd: “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”
The president lingered only briefly on his own accomplishments during his two terms in office. Instead, he spent the bulk of of his speech delivering a call to action for a country left badly divided by the 2016 election.
“By almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than when we started,” Obama told the crowd, who chanted “four more years.” “I can’t do that,” Obama chided them.
Even after eight years in office–during which another 20 million Americans gained the right to health insurance, a time of the “longest stretch of job creation” in history, and which saw marriage equality become the law of the land–Obama emphasized that the country’s work, particularly on racial equality, is far from over.
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic,” Obama said. “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
And while the president said race relations have certainly improved from where they were decades ago, “We’re not where we need to be.”
Obama explained how economic inequality and systemic racism are inextricably intertwined:
If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard working white middle class worker and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.
This work has to be taken up by every American as part of “accepting the responsibility of citizenship,” Obama said–even if your party didn’t win the election.
“For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s,” he continued. “That when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment.”
Near the end of the speech, as Obama thanked First Lady Michelle Obama for accepting her role “with grace and grit and style and good humor,” he started to tear up.
He went on to thank his daughters, Malia and Sasha, for becoming “two amazing young women” despite “the burden of years in the spotlight,” and Vice President Joe Biden, whom he called a “brother.”
For any dry eyes left in the house, Obama turned his old campaign slogan back on the audience in a rousing call to action.
“My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain,” he said. “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”