Every farewell address has a theme. Washington warned of intrusion by foreign governments. Eisenhower talked about the military- industrial complex. Reagan championed American exceptionalism. Clinton called for a more inclusive nation. And Bush put a face on global terrorism. The farewell speech of President Barack Obama, in front of 20,000 loyal supporters in his adopted hometown of Chicago, was both a defense of his economic and cultural legacy, as well as a treatise on the responsibilities of citizenship. As the president forcefully stated in more ways than one: “Our democracy is threatened when we take it for granted.”
The meat of the address highlighted his remarkable achievements with both confidence and dignity. He celebrated that poverty is falling, the wealthy are paying more taxes, unemployment is at record lows, health care is more affordable than ever before, renewable energy has doubled, millions of acres have been federally protected, Muslim prejudice has decreased, relations with the Cuban people have been opened up, the criminal justice system has been reformed, LGBTQ rights have been codified, and naked partisanship has been met with common sense and practical reason.
Yet, none of these accomplishments will endure if ordinary American citizens relinquish their sacred duty to deliver on the promise of our forefathers and foremothers. The promise is that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights. The promise is that we can all be in this together if we love and respect each other. The promise is that democracy can be used as an instrument to help persons seek happiness. This is the beating heart of government, and no other message resounded more dramatically in McCormick Place than that.
For two terms President Obama taught us to “embrace all and not just some.” The president taught us to be vigilant but not afraid. With supreme grace and refined humility, the world’s most admired leader taught us that we must preserve our way of government with “jealous anxiety.” If people do not “show up, dive in, and keep at it,” then our government will erode from within. If people do not participate in local school boards, city and state elections, and be part of political action committees and parties, there will be no one left to save our republic. Without civic participation we are at the mercy of plutocrats, international entities and religious fanatics.
That said, like the farewell address itself, Obama’s America strove for a higher purpose. No more black and white. America represents every pigment conceivable. No more rich or poor. America is not a country for aristocrats and beggars. No more insiders and outsiders. America is a dream that belongs to anyone who seeks a better life. No more red states and blue states. This is one nation under Nature’s God. No more right and wrong. We are a nation of values which are held together by the intolerance of tyranny and the promulgation of free thought. The same goals are shared by all citizens: a high quality education, personal safety, jobs, and faith in the future.
To paraphrase the words of the president, “laws must change but so must hearts and minds. Each of us must be Atticus Finch. We must climb into other people’s shoes and walk around a bit… We must not retreat into our bubbles and social enclaves.”
In general, the president warned all of us that we must not cower from the ultimate challenge of freedom. That is the only way to be truly free.