Goodbye Obama, you will be missed: US president ends with an emotional speech

As he reinstated his belief in American democracy, he also assured his people that he would continue to work among them as a citizen.

 |   Long-form |   11-01-2017
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The 44th president of the United States of America, the one who has been often compared to none other than the greatest of them all – Abraham Lincoln, has made his final speech as president. It’s goodbye from Barack Hussein Obama, the first black man in the White House that was built by slave labour.

President Obama’s farewell address was characterised by the usual flourishes of his powerful oratory, but this was no ordinary time. It was an extraordinary moment of rupture, when the president-elect, Donald Trump, tweets with reckless abandon in incorrect English about “witch-hunts” and “Hillary-flunkies” out to get him. President Obama’s unwavering decency in the face of great, often insurmountable odds, such as now, is something America would miss in the times to come.

In these fractious times, Obama has been a lamppost of solidarity, composure, erudition, compassion, striving for higher ideals, really the philosopher-king. Though the last year saw the splintering effects of post-truth politics, trolling on social media, rampant racism and misogyny getting sanctioned by a campaign trail smearing the democratic ideals that the Obama presidency worked for, at least tried, the 44th president himself exuded optimism.

There is perhaps no one else in the history of US presidency who has been able to sum up his life and times and provide concise and luxurious historiography of the American condition as well as Barack Obama. His farewell speech, though still untouched by the despondency all around, still acting as a beacon of hope in these troubled times, nevertheless shone a light on all things dark and gloomy.

When it comes out, The Collected Speeches of President Barack Obama is a book that will adorn the bookshelves of each and every library and in drawing rooms of those who believe in equality and education for a better tomorrow.

Watch the complete speech here:

Democracy as self-governance

Obama began with a note of thanks, “touched by all the well wishes”. He said: “my conversations with you, the American people – in living rooms and schools; at farms and on factory floors; at diners and on distant outposts – are what have kept me honest, kept me inspired, and kept me going. Every day, I learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.”

That was gratitude. And an acknowledgement that America has made many such youngsters “still trying to figure out who [they were]” into fine individuals working towards the betterment of the world.

He said: “It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss. This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.”

This was and still is Obama’s idea of a “bold experiment in self-government”, something based “certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

More inclusive citizenship

Obama said: “For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande, pushed women to reach for the ballot, powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan – and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.”

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Obama’s farewell address was characterised by the usual flourishes of his powerful oratory, but this was no ordinary time.

His continued insistence on a more inclusive idea of citizenship is particularly poignant at a time when America is torn apart by divisive ideas and practices, when its xenophobia and racism has peaked again, when white nationalism has raised its ugly head and working class grievances have fused with a racist variant of anti-immigrant sentiment to turn America into an odious place to be, if you belong to a minority community.

And the biggest sign and symptom of the hard times ahead is of course Donald Trump, a misogynist and racist so unabashed that America is still waking up from the nightmare of having elected a man who talks of walls, not bridges.

Nod to achievements

In a matter-of-fact manner, and without sounding high-handed about it, Obama reminded his people the achievements of his two-time stint at the White House. It was a very long list that he had abridged to a handful.

“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history…if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11…if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens – you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”

He continued:

“But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”

Peaceful transition of power

Despite several allegations of Russian aid and now blackmailing of president-elect Donald Trump, Obama has promised a “peaceful transition of power”, putting rest to the theories of spontaneous revolt to topple the imminent Trump presidency. This is the biggest test of democracy, to accept the mandate, whether it’s of your liking or not.

Obama said:

“In ten days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”

Warning on ‘state of democracy’

Exactly as Trump has declared his intention to repeal “Obamacare” – health insurance for all, the landmark and signature policy contribution of Barack Obama – the 44th president reiterated the need for social welfare and the lack of safety nets from the State would squander democracy away.

He warned of the problems facing democracy at present.

“There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the spectre of terrorism – these forces haven’t just tested our security and prosperity, but our democracy as well.”

A new social compact

He warned that there are no “quick fixes” to heal democracy that cracking up from within, convulsing because of its own diseases. Instead, he asked for a “new social compact”.

“We must forge a new social compact – to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible. We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”

Hat-tip to Atticus Finch

Most remarkably, the ever-literary US president, in order to emphasise the difficult task ahead for re-inculcating a spirit of racial equality in America, quoted that evergreen character on race-relations: Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. 

“Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination – in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system. That’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, 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.’

“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.”

“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.”

Warning about a ‘post-truth’ politics

“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. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”

Also read: Why Clinton or Trump won't be able to match up to the Obamas

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