Seems like only yesterday when the fresh-faced Barack Obama came out of nowhere and imposed himself on the conscience of the entire world with a simple message that captured the exciting potential of the United States and the endless possibilities that hinged on two words: hope and change.
Close to 70 million American voters bought into that message and in November 2008, elected Obama to be their 44th president, making him the first Black person to hold the most powerful office on Earth.
At the time, the world was giddy with the expectation of what was to come under the leadership of the intelligent young senator who moved the masses with his eloquence and optimism. Now before you know it, eight years have passed, and pundits are talking about his legacy while the world braces for the unknown in the face of a successor that continues to show himself as erratic.
On the evening of January 10, tens of thousands of Chicagoans and millions around the world eagerly hung on to his every word as he took to the podium at McCormick Place, the same place where he gave his acceptance speech eight years ago, to offer now his farewell address.
And as he has done on so many instances since he took office in 2008, he mesmerized the masses with a seminal address that offered strong words of advise to his fellow Americans about the protection of their democratic values in the face of what is expected to be an on-coming period of political uncertainty in the country.
With eyes firmly planted on the future he put out the call:
“Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and re-invention means that the future should be ours,” he offered. “But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflect the decency of our people. 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.”
Indeed, democracy, American values and the obligation of citizens were the watch words in the speech that seemed better suited to be delivered by a professor than a president who is exiting office with his popularity at a remarkable high… around 70 per cent.
Because of the remarkable gains that were made by his presidency, there might have been expectations of triumphalism.
But Obama, full of grace and dignity, didn’t deem it necessary to remind the nation that he dragged America from the brink of a financial depression with a $787 billion stimulus that triggered economic growth and put millions of Americans back to work. Today the country is at full employment status.
His fiscal initiatives also reformed Wall Street, the banking industry and salvaged the auto industry, all of which were on the edge of collapse.
And in addition to restoring America’s image abroad and restoring relations with long-standing enemies like Cuba and Iran, he was also able to get power-driven nations like China and others to come to an agreement on climate control.
Many expected him to harp a little bit more on the crowning glory of his administration, the Affordable Care Act which provided health insurance coverage to at least 30 million Americans who had little chance of getting it before, but he didn’t.
However, although he refrained from poking at the bear that is the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump, it was obvious that the core of his message was aimed at cautioning against turning back gains have been made across the political spectrum.
Another point of reference was his call for empathy from all groups across the political divide, which is significant for a president that will go down as one of the most polarizing in the history of America.
As the country’s first Black president, Obama is keenly aware of the crippling impact that racism has had on his presidency and on minorities over the last eight years, underlined by a pledge by the opposition to do all in their power to ensure that he failed.
So he zeroed in on the issue, framing it as an attack on the fundamental tenants of democracy and calling for extended empathy from all groups of citizens.
He used a quote by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill A Mocking Bird:”
“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 minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.
We have to pay attention and listen.”
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; when they wage peaceful protest they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.
Sadly, as it was for much of his tenure, the address soared above the primary concerns of the majority of Blacks in America who voted 98% for him both in 2008 and 2012, many of whom are still straddling the bottom rung of the economic ladder and facing the brunt of a still unfair justice system.
But in spite of their lingering frustrations, as seen in the faces of the few that were able to snag tickets to the speech, Blacks are still proud of their president.
Some are aware that his sacrifice of the political capital that brought him into office to attain the widest possible health insurance coverage was, in effect, done for them.
Others, resigned to the lingering injustice of a racist system, are aware of the limitations Obama faced in making a dent in it. So they are just proud of his accomplishments, his dignity and the grace with which he held office.
That’s why tears flowed in millions of Black households around the world as he delivered what is his last oratorical masterpiece as POTUS (President of the United States.)
Political watchers know that since taking office Obama made a decided choice to fulfill as best he can his duties as a father and husband rather than to schmooze with the political types in Washington.
He reminded the world of that commitment last with a sweet little love note to his wife Michelle Laverne Robinson-Obama and his daughters Malia and Sasha.
He also paid tribute to vice president Joe Biden and his staff.
As he is wont to do, Obama struck an optimistic tone to end his address, focusing on the amazing potential of the up-coming generation and their ingrained abilities to carry the baton:
And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.
(…) Unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic … you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.