CHICAGO – U.S. President Barack Obama handed over the baton of change that brought him to the White House to all American citizens, and urged them to safeguard democracy and not take it for granted in a moving farewell address to the nation on Tuesday.
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours,” stressed Obama in his final speech to the nation in Chicago, before an audience of around 18,000 people, 10 days before Republican Party’s Donald Trump takes over the Oval Office.
“You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started,” declared Obama.
He said when he came to power eight years ago, if he had promised voters that the U.S. would manage to reverse a great recession, open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program, win marriage equality and reform the healthcare system, “you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”
He also warned about threats to democracy, saying it “won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.”
He added that although his election – as the country’s first ever Afro-American president – marked a historical milestone of sorts, racism lives on in the country and more work remains to be done to eliminate prejudices against minorities and immigrants.
“After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” he confessed.
To counter the rise of “naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification,” the outgoing president said citizens must act as “guardians” of democracy, and “not just when there’s an election... but over the full span of a lifetime.”
Warning against taking democracy for granted, he highlighted the Constitution has no power on its own, and it is the people who give it meaning through active participation.
With 10 days to go before President-elect Donald Trump takes office, Obama pledged to ensure a “peaceful” transfer of power.
While making little mention of Trump in his speech, Obama warned against a “weakening of the values that make us who we are” and made clear his rejection of discrimination against American-Muslims.
During his speech, he also underlined that no foreign terrorist organization had successfully planned and executed an attack on U.S. soil during his tenure.
He also expressed confidence terrorist group Islamic State “will be destroyed. And no one who threatens America will ever be safe.”
Commenting on the growing hegemonic threat presented by Russia and China he said these rivals “cannot match our influence around the world – unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.”
The speech took an emotional turn towards the end when Obama thanked democrat supporters, his White House team, and above all, his family.
With tears in his eyes, Obama told his wife Michelle she had been his best friend, even as their visibly-moved elder daughter Malia looked on.
“You took on a role you didn’t ask for. And you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style, and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody,” he said.
Obama had special words of praise for Vice President Joseph Biden, in whom he said he had “gained a brother,” and added choosing him as his second-in-command had been his best decision.