Barack Obama’s final speech as president was as much a warning as it was a farewell–a warning to Americans that they’re still in the middle of crafting their country’s history. Democracies are most vulnerable, the president said, when their citizens forget they’re pursuing a common goal. What he didn’t say, but really didn’t have to, is that such a unified sense of purpose is currently in short supply.
In front of an emotional crowd in his adopted hometown of Chicago, the 44th President of the United States cited its first. Quoting George Washington’s own farewell speech, Obama said Americans should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make the country one. His message–that such a dawn is breaking at this very moment–was clear. When Obama was elected in 2008, social media was still young. Now it has become the fault line along which political discourse fractures, making the country’s commonly held ideals–and commonly enjoyed successes–all too easy to overlook.
In many ways, Obama is leaving the country more whole than it was when he was elected in 2008 during the throes of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.7 percent and the country has added 15.8 million jobs since 2010.
But in other ways, as the 2016 election and its aftermath have shown, the country has rarely seemed more broken. Surveys show just how politically polarized the country has become since 2004 when Obama, still a state senator from Illinois at the time, made a name for himself on stage at the Democratic National Convention. In his speech tonight, Obama made no effort to mask that sense of division, and he took no credit for bridging the ideological gaps that still divide the country. Instead, he urged Americans to embrace civil discourse over tribalism and escape the social media echo chambers that help keep citizens apart.
“The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste–all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable,” Obama said.
“And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”
The president’s speech was not merely a rote call for unity. It was a reminder to Americans that, as he put it, “the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured,” and that when people undermine the freedom of the press, the freedom of religion, and basic scientific truths, they open themselves up to manipulation.
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy,” he said.
Obama barely mentioned president-elect Donald Trump during his address, but the president displayed an acute awareness of the tensions between political parties, races, and geographies that Trump’s victory has brought to the surface. As the first black president, Obama acknowledged that talk of a post-racial society was always unrealistic. “The effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the `60s,” he said. At the same time, the president argued vigorously against pitting white middle class workers against minorities, as this most recent election did. When that happens, he said, “workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
Finally, the president called America’s young people to action, just as he did in his address following Trump’s win–and in his own victorious campaigns for president. The rising generation of new voters, he said, is more inclusive than the ones that have come before it. “You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace,” he said. “You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”
For Obama, it was an optimistic end at a time when his supporters are anything but. Of course, as a candidate and as a president, Obama has always advocated for hope. Now comes the change.