Nostalgia, hope and a warning as Obama bids farewell to presidency

Nostalgia, hope and a warning as Obama bids farewell to presidency
US President Barack Obama wiping away a tear as he delivers his farewell address yesterday in Chicago, Illinois. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:00 AM, January 12, 2017

CHICAGO — United States President Barack Obama, delivering a farewell address in the city that launched his political career, declared yesterday his continued confidence in the American experiment. But he warned, in the wake of a toxic presidential election, that economic inequity, racism and closed-mindedness threatened to shred the nation’s democratic fabric.

“We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others,” he said, “when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”

Speaking to a rapturous crowd that recalled the excitement of his path-breaking campaign in 2008, Mr Obama said he believed even the deepest ideological divides could be bridged. His words were nevertheless etched with frustration — a blunt coda to a remarkable day that laid bare many of the racial crosscurrents in the country.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Jeff Sessions presented himself as a moderate in his confirmation hearing for attorney-general, while his critics denounced him as a racist.

And in the cavernous convention hall where Mr Obama celebrated his re-election in 2012, the nation’s first black president — still popular, still optimistic — bade America goodbye 10 days before turning over his office to President-elect Donald Trump, who ran what his critics labelled a racist campaign.

Mr Obama pledged again to support his successor. But his speech was a thinly veiled rebuke of several of the positions Mr Trump staked out during the campaign, from climate change and barring Muslims from entering the country to repealing his landmark health care law.

“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities,” Mr Obama said, “then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclave.”

He added: “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.”

In a pointed reference to Republicans determined to repeal the health care Bill that was one of the signature accomplishments of his presidency, Mr Obama said: “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.”

There were nostalgic moments as well. He recalled the 2008 campaign that started him on his improbable journey to the White House. He thanked the army of volunteers and staff members who swept him into the Oval Office, ending with the iconic chant: “Yes, we can.” And reflecting on all they had accomplished, he added: “Yes, we did.”

“It has been the honour of my life to serve you,” Mr Obama said.

“I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.”

But Mr Obama clearly wanted to use his last major turn on the national stage to send a message. Americans, he said, should not take their democracy for granted.

“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 neighbours. Which brings me to my final point — our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” he said.

Lamenting the perennially low voter turnout rates, Mr Obama urged people to become involved.

“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet,” he said, “try to talk with one in real life.”

“America is not a fragile thing,” the President said. “But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.” THE NEW YORK TIMES