President Barack Obama has called upon Americans to defend their democracy, and remember their duty as citizens, during an emotionally charged farewell speech in Chicago.
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours,” he told them.
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
“Yes We Can
“Yes We Did
“Yes We Can.”
The country’s first African American president was first elected in 2008 on an optimistic message of hope and change for the future.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible […] who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," he told crowds in Chicago in 2008 after winning the election.
Now, two terms later, he is stepping down from his position at the White House to make way for a man who has vowed to undo a number of his signature policies.
On 20 January, Donald Trump – a bigoted former reality star whose controversial election campaign was marred by scandal, sexist slurs and racist comments – will be sworn into office.
Unsurprisingly, this led to many people calling for Obama to have “four more years”, something which POTUS laughed off during his speech. And, when they began booing at the mere mention of Trump’s name, he chastised with a gentle “No, no no, no, no”, and reminded them that a peaceful transfer between presidents is a “hallmark” of American democracy.
Choosing not to focus on his successor’s failings, Obama called upon the American people to remember that they each have a role to play in the future of their country – and that they have a duty to one another, too.
“All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions,” Obama told the crowds.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make.”
Obama warned that “democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted”, and implored Americans of all backgrounds to consider things from each other’s point of view.
“We have to pay attention and listen,” he said firmly.
The President went on to warn his country about the dangers posed by climate change (something which Trump has famously scoffed at in the past), reminding the public of the steps he has taken in the last eight years; reducing dependence on foreign oil, increasing renewable energies, and signing the Paris Accord.
Begging citizens not to ignore science, he said: “Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary,” says Obama.
“Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.”
He went on to outline three further threats to American democracy; economic inequality, racial divisions and the retreat of different segments of society into “bubbles”, where opinions are not based on “some common baseline of facts”.
“All of us have more work to do [to achieve a post-racial America],” he said, challenging people to run for office themselves and make the changes they want to see.
“After all, 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.
“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.”
Obama then quoted Attitcus Finch from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Brushing away tears, Obama went on to deliver a series of personal thank-you messages – to ”scrappy kid” VP Joe Biden, whom he dubbed his “brother”, to those working in his administration, and, most poignantly of all, to his wife Michelle and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
“Michelle,” he said, as the First Lady raised her fist in solidarity. “Girl of the South Side.”
“For the past 25 years, you’ve been not only my wife and mother of my children, but my best friend. You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humour.”
Turning to his daughters, he told them: “You have become two amazing young women, smart and beautiful, but more importantly, kind and thoughtful and full of passion. You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily.
“Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad.”
In his final remarks, Obama promised that despite this being a farewell speech, he would continue to work for his country and fight for democracy for the rest of his life.
“My fellow Americans, it has been the honour 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.”
All rise for President Barack Obama.
Images: Rex Features