In an expansive and emotional farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday, President Barack Obama revisited the achievements and challenges of his eight years in office, outlined what he sees as the greatest threats to our democracy and both paid tribute to his supporters and colleagues, while urging them to keep fighting for what they believe in.
The speech arrived at a surreal moment, 10 days away from his final day in the White House, Obama is enjoying his highest approval ratings in over six years (according to a new Quinnipiac poll) while his polarizing successor, President-elect Donald Trump has been besieged with unflattering headlines and ever more discouraging poll numbers.
Amid all the speculation and apprehension, Obama gave one of the most memorable final major addresses from a president in recent history. Here are eight of the biggest takeaways from the speech people will be talking about for a long time:
1) Obama plans to defend his accomplishments
Some of the president’s biggest applause lines came when he doubled down his legislative and diplomatic victories (from his stewardship of the economy during the Great Recession to his outreach to Cuba and Iran), almost daring his successors to undermine them at their own risk.
For instance, he continued to champion his imperiled Affordable Care Act (which has by most calculations brought the U.S. uninsured rate to a historic low) and argued that if his anyone ever crafted a plan that was more cost effective and provided health care to more people he himself would endorse it.
2) Obama is committed to taking down Trump-ism, if not Trump himself
The president’s few words specifically mentioning his successor were gracious (even amid boos from the crowd in Chicago), but the bulk of his oratory read as a defiant rebuke of the controversial political ideology that the president-elect espoused both during and since the general election.
Obama made it clear that he will not tolerate discrimination against Muslims or undocumented immigrants, that he will stand in opposition to any efforts to divide Americans along the lines of race, gender, sexuality or economic class, and he defended those who have made their dissent known through peaceful protest, arguing “they’re not demanding special treatment, but equal treatment.”
3) Obama sees economic inequality, racial antagonism and willful ignorance as major threats to democracy
Although the thrust of Obama’s oratory was largely optimistic, he did take great pains to outline what he sees as the most imminent threats to our country’s ability to unify. In some cases, when it came to addressing the gap between the rich and poor and racial unrest, he argued the solutions go hand in hand.
“After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves,” he said. The president went on to say that Americans on both sides of aisle are doing the country a disservice by subscribing to only the facts they choose to believe.
4) Obama warned that we only embolden our enemies by turning on each other
While Obama paid homage to the nation’s military, diplomats, and law enforcement for helping to prevent any foreign attacks on U.S. soil during his tenure, he admitted that there is a lot more work to do, particularly within the country where he said “democracy can buckle when it gives into fear.”
Without mentioning Trump by name, the president took several not-very-veiled swipes at some of his most controversial rhetoric about international policy, and said “we cannot withdraw from global fights — to expand democracy, and human rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights — no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem.”
5) Obama will push for a renewed commitment to public service and lawmakers that reflect the country
The president got granular about the harm that redistricting and the suppression of voting rights has done to the American people’s faith in their political process and ability to effect change. Obama hinted at him taking a personal role (already reported on last fall) in reversing that trend but also eagerly encouraged his supporters to seek office themselves (echoing a call Sen. Bernie Sanders made to his dispirited followers last fall) and made the argument that the process of serving had enriched him.
“Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose,” said Obama. “Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.”
6) Obama thinks we all need to put our phones down and talk to one another
In one of the few and biggest laugh lines of the night, President Obama suggested, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life.” It was part of a larger case he made throughout the speech, which touched on themes he has returned to again and again as both a candidate and president, about the things that unite Americans more than divides them.
The president lamented the way in which Americans now self-segregate even in terms of the news they consume and don’t spend enough time heeding the Atticus Finch character’s advice from “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “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.”
7) Obama believes that the millennial generation will preserve and protect his values
Still, Obama sees a lot to be optimistic about in one of his most devoted bloc of supporters — the youth. “This generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country,” the president said. “You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.
8) Obama’s a softie, when all is said and done
A tearful President Obama brought the house down with his heartfelt tributes to his staff, Vice President Joe Biden (who he called a “brother), wife first lady Michelle Obama (whose first name alone brought along a standing ovation) and his now teenage daughter Malia and Sasha. Despite clearly taking great pride in his formidable record as president, Obama calling being their father the “proudest” achievement of his life. And with a playful callback to his 2008 campaign slogan “Yes We Can,” Obama then descended into the crowd personally greeting and thanking the throngs in attendance. Although he has no more campaigns to run he pledged to be “right there with you” as a private citizen.