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Obama’s Farewell Address was More Than Just a Goodbye
01.11.17
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 10: U.S. President Barack Obama gives his farewell speech at McCormick Place on January 10, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama addressed the nation in what is expected to be his last trip outside Washington as president. President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president on January 20. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

When President Obama emerged last night in the city of blinding lights, his hometown of Chicago, he greeted an audience who wore their feelings on their sleeves. The mix of emotions in the restless crowd was obvious; the speech found the country teetering on the edge of a major power transition.

Farewell speeches are largely a symbolic tradition started by George Washington in a time when there was no presidential term limit; a bookend to an era. What followed from President Obama was less symbolism and more a call to arms — an impassioned appeal to all Americans to engage in their democracy.

In the weeks since the election and leading up to the inauguration, a call to arms is what we’ve needed. Those of us who felt disillusioned by the election results, who are increasingly unsure of the President-elect’s choices for cabinet, and who fear what his platform means for progress made in the last decade have spent this time in a state of insecurity. We’ve been waiting for a Hail Mary, for something to make sense of what we didn’t see coming.

Some threatened to leave the country. Others chanted “not my President.” But the vast majority sat in hushed silence, waiting for guidance.

We got it, resoundingly, last night. Hidden among favorite Obama themes — hope and change — was the blueprint for the future: the continued empathetic engagement of our generation in politics and social change. The President warned about the breakdown of American democracy and against disenchantment, echo chambers and divisiveness. He lauded the importance of science and reason, and spurred on the spirit of “innovation and practical problem solving.”

In what I felt was one of the most powerful points of the night, he quoted Atticus Finch, the fearless civil rights warrior and one of the protagonists of 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.”

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 10: U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia Obama wave goodbye to supporters after Obama's farewell address at McCormick Place on January 10, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama addressed the nation in what is expected to be his last trip outside Washington as president. President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president on January 20. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

Empathy is easy when it’s for your mirror image, for people who look, pray, think and vote the same way you do. It’s a whole lot harder when it’s inclusive and aimed at those who are different. The President received the loudest cheers when he renewed the call to end discrimination against Muslim Americans and continue the fight for “democracy, human rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights.”

The inclusiveness of the American dream extends even to the unlikely underdog. In what many political commentators saw as a nod to “Trump’s America,” President Obama encouraged empathy for “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.”

The terminology — “Trump’s America” — is antithetical to the President’s speech, which called for solidarity and the understanding “that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do, [that] for all our outward differences, we share […] the most important office in a democracy, citizen.”

As I watched President Obama thank Michelle and his daughters, I looked at my husband, who was sitting on our couch next to me, and we reached for each other’s hands. And then, I thought — I hope that we can be like them.

That is really something. Both Alex and I are millennial immigrants. President Obama is the only President I’ve known in my adult lifetime, and he’s never failed to embody the America I dreamed of as a kid. Listening to him address his daughters — highlighting their kindness, their thoughtfulness and their passion — it felt like a personal paternal call to embody all of the above.

While the ebb and flow of politics may make us feel, as the President said, that we’ve taken two steps forward and one back, “the long sweep of America is defined by forward motion.” It’s on us now to be stewards of our democracy and our country—“let’s be vigilant, but not afraid.” Yes, we can! So, onward!

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photos via Darren Hauck/Getty Images.

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  • hope

    I’ve been around for a couple of presidents, and never felt any personal emotion about any of them.

    But I cried (with utter joy) when Mr. Obama was elected in 2008, and again (with immense sadness) last night.

    I cant imagine having a brilliant president like him again in my lifetime, so I cant imagine coming to tears (of either joy or sadness) ever again.

    • Allison

      Yes! We were so lucky to have this President, but I have to have hope that there will be inspiring leaders again in our future…

  • Sam

    I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 from Europe, where I was living at the time. He was the first president I was old enough for vote for, and I was so proud to cast a ballot for him (I did so again in 2012 of course, haha). Watching his (the country’s) victory from the outside made me so very proud of every one of us. He made me believe in all of us as a people and he consistently embodied everything I believed the United States COULD be, and still can be. He’s served as a model of what we should all strive to be: intelligent, kind, thoughtful, and unwavering in the face of adversity. He wasn’t a perfect president and I accept that, but he is the president I have connected with the most. I’ll miss him so much.

  • Yvonne Dunlevie

    Last night a few people on our team were slacking during the address, saying all the normal stuff like “I don’t want them to leave!!!” Patty made a really simple but great point which was: “we were lucky to have that family fight for us for as long as we’ve had.”

    I think in so many ways all of the Obamas exemplify selflessness and hard work and man…have they earned a little “break”. Who knows if any of them will actually take it..but I just loved Patty’s comment. Really helped me to try and think about all of the personal sacrifices Barack & Michelle & Malia & Sasha took to serve our country.