And the faithful, young and old, who felt he changed their lives and the country for the better over the past eight years flowed into the McCormick Place convention center to commune with President Obama one last time.
As the president’s farewell address echoed across the vast, cavernous space, his fellow citizens held up their cellphones like a sea of stars, trying to hold on to the moment, perhaps afraid of what lies ahead.
Some had traveled only a few blocks to get here, others had traveled hundreds of miles just to bookend the Obama years in person.
Camilla Ihenetu came from Philadelphia to watch the farewell. She worked on the ’08 campaign, then in the first lady’s office, and became a Fulbright Scholar. Now studying at the University of Pennsylvania, she was all set to continue classes, “but I just thought there was no way that I could miss this… I needed to be here in person ’cause it comes full circle for me. This is a man and a campaign that helped shape my life. So I had to come back.”
Tim Wu is a net-neutrality advocate and law professor who works for the National Economic Council, but he paid his way to be here, not content to watch from Washington. “I can kind of chart my life by the Obama speeches,” he said. “I heard the first one at the DNC. I remember the first inauguration. These are milestones.”
When Obama was elected, Wu reflected, people saw him as youth and change personified.
“But his strength has really been the oldest of leadership qualities: integrity, honesty, and quality of character.”
In that same way, while President Obama’s farewell address broke from precedent in terms of style, the substance of the speech was rooted in the oldest American values.
Yes, he ditched the confines of the traditional Oval Office address, opting instead for a hometown rally. The speech was sprawling and soaring, containing extended shoutouts to his wife and daughters and the vice-president he called a brother.
Obama laid out a progressive vision, but it was framed in almost conservative terms, quoting the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Farewell, paying tribute to the pioneers, immigrants and inventors, soldiers, slaves and suffragettes; making the case that “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.”
But while he took pains to paint an optimistic, inclusive picture of America, this is one of those times that Obama described as “two steps forward, one step back.” And so he fulfilled the other great farewell tradition: He issued a warning to his fellow citizens about “the state of our democracy.”
President Obama addressed his signature concerns of growing income inequality and imperfect progress toward a post-racial union. In the process, he gave Harper Lee another nudge toward literary immortality by quoting Atticus Finch, “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.”
In a pushback to liberal identity politics, he argued that empathy should extend to “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.”
Then he flipped the script by explaining that “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.”
That last line brought the crowd to its feet.
The president condemned the connection between partisan media and hyperpartisan politics, perpetuating our respective bubbles and resulting in an assault on reason: “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.”
But for President Obama, the broader faultlines of our times are between freedom and fear, “first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power… It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought.”
This was the unified field theory of Obama’s farewell—that fear of change is perpetuating very real threats to liberal democracy at home and around the world. His solution is in the power of pluralism, the unity in diversity expressed by an enlightened sense of citizenship.
“Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” President Obama declared. And that was the message that brought it all back home: home to his background as a community organizer on the South Side, home to the roll-up your sleeves spirit of “Yes, We Can” that against the odds elected our first black president.
Self-government is not a spectator sport. It requires resolve even and especially after elections go another way. Forming a more perfect union doesn’t happen on its own. It is the result of hard work.
For the Obama faithful—and the majority of Americans who voted for someone other than President-elect Trump—it is a reminder that they cannot simply retreat into cynicism or despair, which would only make defeat permanent. Perhaps that’s the message of hope that so many of the people clustered in the Chicago convention hall needed to hear. Because the character of the country did not change on Election Day. Our independence remains inseparable from our interdependence, as it has from the earliest days of our republic. And when President Obama leaves the Oval Office, the inspiration he has provided his supporters will not vanish. It will transform into something more accessible, fitting the title he will wear with pride: citizen.