CHICAGO — You don’t get change just by hoping.
That was President Barack Obama’s message to his supporters and to the whole country in his farewell speech, an emotional call to action to combat what he identified as four “threats to democracy”: cracks in America’s solidarity as a nation, racial divisions that pit people against each other at the benefit of the wealthy, a retreat from facts and reasonable arguments, and an apathy toward protecting democracy.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment,” Obama said, urging mobilization. “It has no power of its own. We, the people, give it power—with our participation and the choices we make.”
In a speech of healing and reassurance for himself and all the people in agony over who’s going to be sworn in as his successor 10 days from now, Obama ended, naturally, by recalling his old theme, casting it as a message of accomplishment and a rallying cry for the future: “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”
But the deeper message was in another short three sentences: “Show up. Dive in. Persevere.”
He did not say Donald Trump’s name, but a rebuke to Trump and the campaign he ran and the administration he is forming were lurking in nearly every paragraph of the one-hour speech. America can prevail over every challenge—including China and, ahem, Russia—he said, “unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.”
The biggest cheer of the night was an extended one for First Lady Michelle Obama, during which the president teared up to the point of bringing a handkerchief to his eye (his thank you to Vice President Joe Biden also drew a tear that he wiped away). But the second biggest cheer was when he said, adamantly, that he rejected discrimination against Muslim Americans, all but taking direct aim at the Muslim ban and other comments that defined Trump’s campaign.
“The fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression,” Obama said.
“For every two steps forward, it often feels like we take one step back,” the president also said, bucking up an audience that’s despondent over Trump and the expected reversal of much of what’s been done the last eight years. “But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.”
Everyone needs to rethink what they’re doing, he said: “if you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life,” urging people to organize in their communities and run for office.
Already Obama’s farewell was going to compete for attention with Trump’s planned press conference in New York Wednesday morning. But as his motorcade made its way from O’Hare here to the McCormick Center, attention was quickly being overtaken by mushrooming reports of contacts between the president-elect’s team and Russia and rumors pegged to an unverified document prepared by an unnamed former British intelligence operative detailing supposed compromising information about Trump in the hands of Russian intelligence.
But none of that made it into Obama’s final major speech as president, as he was brought on stage to a darkened room and the strains of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” his original campaign song.
Don’t mistake that, Obama said, for seeing right now as anything other than a major crisis moment, where at risk is the solidarity that has defined America from the days when Ben Franklin drew that “Join, or Die” cartoon in 1754.
“There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times,” Obama said.
“A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change and the specter of terrorism these forces haven’t just tested our security and prosperity, but our democracy as well.”
That basic summary of what Trump’s campaign tapped into, Obama charged, is more a prescription for corrosive and dispiriting political point scoring than helping people.
As Republicans go to war with each other over how to actually act on their years of insisting Obamacare needs to be torn down, Obama took a dig: “if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system that covers as many people at less cost I will publicly support it.”
As Trump picks a head of the Environmental Protection Agency who favors business protection over environmental regulation and leans into skepticism about the definitive science about global warming as he questions the Paris accord that was another of this administration’s proudest achievements, Obama warned, “our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects.”
As Trump backs changes to the tax code and corporate regulation after a winning campaign that often bubbled with racial resentment and a Democratic Party that’s retreated into arguing over whether it needs to pay more attention to the white working class or its “base” (here regular code for non-white Democrats), Obama insisted that would have only one, disheartening result: “ if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
For all of those worries, Obama said he leaves more optimistic than when he started. What’s going on, he said, can’t be stopped.
“This generation coming up unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America, you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward,” Obama said. “You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”