President Obama, delivering his last major address at the end of his history making presidency, warned that divisions within the country could pose a threat to democracy.
In an emotional, hour-long speech at Chicago’s McCormick Place, before a cheering crowd of supporters, Obama even cited the role of social media and partisan networks in creating a “bubble” that exacerbate divisions.
“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses or places of worship or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions,” he said. “The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”
While he outlined many of his accomplishments in his eight years in office, his calls for unity and common ground reflected the themes of his presidential campaign that nevertheless often eluded him in the White House.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity,” he said. “Our founders argued, they quarreled and eventually they compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
He warned that “America is not a fragile thing, but the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
During his presidency, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram exploded. Although his White House capitalized on it as a means of reaching citizens, Obama also spoke of its downside, as its users seek out only information that confirms their own views.
“Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them,” he said. “But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”
Obama teared up as he thanked his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as his two daughters, Sasha and Malia. “A new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model,” he said of the first lady.
Obama delivered the speech in Chicago before the rally-like crowd — made up of supporters, current and former administration officials, and donors — as a kind of return to his roots. His new presidential library will be located there, although the Obamas will remain in Washington for another year and a half so their youngest daughter can finish high school.
He mentioned his successor, Donald Trump, by name only once — and there were boos when Obama initially mentioned the pending inauguration of his successor. But Obama also signaled some of the fault lines, particularly when it comes to issues like climate change, immigration and healthcare. He hinted that some of what the new administration is planning, with a Republican majority, ignore a factual basis or are hypocritical.
“How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations? How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating. Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”
But he also tried to extend notes of optimism to those dejected by the election results. He acknowledged that “our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. 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.”
Obama outlined solutions to the divisions, including over the volatile issue of race. He said that talk of a “post-racial America” after his election was “never realistic.” Instead, he called for a common dialog after a divisive presidential campaign in which rhetoric seemed to pit the vision of a multicultural America against disaffected working class whites.
“For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change,” he said.
“For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”
He pushed back against the cynicism toward politics and public service, and urged Americans to get out of their comfort zones and to recognize the need for public participation beyond 140 character tweets.
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life,” he said. “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”
He did end his speech on a hopeful note, characterizing the next generation as yearning to be engaged and repeating his campaign catch phrase, “Yes, we can.”
Watch Obama’s farewell speech below: