In his 2008 victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, President Obama made a promise to the American people that evoked chants of his campaign’s mantra “yes, we can” with a message of hope and faith in America’s ability to create change. In particular, the newly elected president called on the American people together to “join in the work of remaking this nation” and to “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
On Tuesday night, Obama returned to Chicago and to this same vision as he reflected both upon the journey since and the way forward in his farewell address. Obama began with a list of specific successes of his eight years as president: an economic rebound, the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, and the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, among others. He concluded, “That’s what you did. You were the change.”
Always one to give credit to the people rather than himself, Obama focused on the role of the American people in shaping his administration and effecting real change. “[Chicago] is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it,” Obama reflected, expressing his gratitude to his supporters. “Every day, I have learned from you.”
Obama’s abiding belief in the power of ordinary Americans, however, was tempered by his concern about the current tenor of our public discourse. The president warned that democracy, the very foundation of the system that promotes the participation of average citizens and thereby makes change possible, may be in danger. This warning, and the subsequent call to preserve that foundation, was the focus of the president’s vision for the future.
“The future should be ours,” Obama commented, “But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works … only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.” These words are especially poignant at the end of a particularly grueling election season characterized by division, fake news and a lack of empathy for one another. In order to save our democracy and continue moving forward, the president argued, we must remember that even when we disagree on how to achieve certain goals, “we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves.” Instead, we must engage in rigorous public discourse, fighting for our own beliefs while remembering to listen to others as well.
In order to strengthen our democracy, the president emphasized, we need to grant everyone economic opportunity, regardless of their race, class, or gender. He advocated for immigrants, arguing that “if we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children.” He asserted that we must uphold laws against discrimination that will allow every American to take advantage of the promise that this country offers them. But laws, he adds, won’t be enough—“hearts must change” as well.
The speech ended with a call to action—specifically, a call to participate actively in our democracy, listen to others, fight for freedom, and reject fear. Our system does not work unless each citizen is an “anxious, jealous guardian of our democracy.” This brought Obama back to his first point: that we, the people, are the agents of progress.
Despite the challenges that he has faced in the last eight years, President Obama still has the same vision for the country that he articulated in Grant Park in 2008: yes, we can—but only when we gather together to achieve a common goal, engage with those who hold opinions different from our own, and focus on facts and results rather than ideology; only when we truly begin to consider the title citizen the “most important one in our democracy.”
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