As Barack Obama Bids Farewell, We're Left to Carry the Torch

Just as his presidency began, Barack Obama returned to Chicago last night to offer his farewells to the nation. As mentioned immediately following the proceedings, this speech did not seem to resemble an emotional parting of ways that many expected. Those listening likened it more to a State of the Union address, emphasizing the President’s pointed words on American affairs both foreign and domestic. Perhaps overall, it served as a warning – although not in the dire tone one might envision.

With the event amassing over 20,000 enthusiastic supporters, the mood to begin the speech was very positive and energetic. As expected, a pro-Obama crowd cheered and hung on every word as our commander in chief spoke. Bringing attention to the series of successes of both the administration and the American public, it then became time to speak to our future. Segueing into the results of the election, Obama made it clear to a booing crowd that a peaceful transition of power was absolutely vital. American democracy, he argued, is a system built on time-honored values of respect and cooperation. Moving forward from this point in the speech, the conversation seemed to project an aura of seriousness.

The message soon became very clear: the democracy the United States has come to know is now at threat. Now more than ever we are being tested, within our local communities and with our national sentiments. Many feel they are not being heard, and that our values are withering. He opined that one of the major tenets of democracy is faith, and that we must believe in our institutions. Of course, these institutions must earn this trust. I cannot help but be reminded of bits of Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, and draw parallels:

Confidence is not simply some romantic dream…or a proverb in a dusty book, that we read just on the 4th of July. It is the idea which founded our nation, and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else. We’ve always believed in something called ‘progress’.

Let’s talk about that progress. The former president stated that while we take two steps forward, many times we take one step back soon after. However, the direction of America has predominantly been forward, and we have a propensity for doing so. The step back recently has been vividly displayed in the competing beliefs and divisions of Americans over priorities. Sure, we want to move forward, but what aims do we pursue? Which causes do we choose to uphold?

 Far too often, this question has been considered purely at the individual level. Additionally, a sense of fear has permeated both American politics and social issues. As the nation yields to these pitfalls as a collective, then we are doomed to fail. The United States’ triumphs must be shared by all, and when we falter that burden is carried by everyone equally. “We’re all in this together, we rise and fall as one.” Even if we cannot agree, a basic sense of solidarity is crucial. Accordingly, it was repeated that the United States has some of the worst voter turnout rates amongst advanced democratic nations. While showing up to the polls is important nationally, change must be driven locally as well. The officials we put into office become our voice, and concerns must be communicated. The negative lens with which we view public office can also discourage “well-meaning” candidates from making a difference. Accountability is key, as is remaining vigilant. Upholding principles of human rights, rule of law, and the Bill of Rights is paramount.  However, this was delivered with the trademark optimistic tone for which the former president is known, with corresponding enthusiasm from those in attendance.

Major themes of racial inequality and love for one another rang prominently throughout. Although we have come far in the past few decades, there is still work to be done. The generational difference is important in this amongst African Americans. Those who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s know how much progress has been made to this point. To newer generations, these changes are not as apparent. Battling enduring inequality present in the justice system, housing market, and economy will be essential. Opening hearts and minds is key, and this starts at home.

Immigration must not have a dark cloud cast over it. It makes no sense to ostracize young immigrants, when they will contribute so heavily to future workforces. It is important to note that combatting xenophobia can produce major economic advantages. It is also interesting to note the contrasts between the views of the Obama administration and the incoming Trump administration. While the former president tried to appeal to our sensibilities, he demonstrated clear disdain towards apathy and fearmongering.

Lastly, it is important that we rediscover "the spirit of the Enlightenment," adhering to logic and reason. Engaging others in logical debates founded on facts helps avoid misinformation. Learning to listen instead of simply 'hearing', to concede when others make fair points, will drive us forward. We have all the tools we could ever need to make this possible. It boils down to taking responsibility for our own prosperity and reviving the common good. If you're tired of arguing with some stranger online, get out there and converse with those around you. In the wise words of Lao Tzu, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."