U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday the country is a “better, stronger place” than when he took office in 2008, pointing to the reversal of a recession, passage of his landmark healthcare program and the legalization of gay marriage as achievements the American people have won through his message of change.
That section of his farewell address drew huge applause from a crowd of thousands in Chicago, delivered a few kilometers from the site where he gave his acceptance speech the night he won his first term in the White House.
With less than two weeks before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, Obama had directed his team to craft an address that would speak to all Americans, including those who voted for Trump.
Obama said in his speech it is up to all Americans to make sure the government can meet the country’s many challenges and that he has committed to making the transition to the new administration as smooth as possible.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity,” he said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together.”
Obama is the first black man to serve as U.S. president, and he noted that after his election many spoke of what they called a “post-racial” America. But he said race is still a “potent and often divisive force,” and stressed the need to uphold anti-discrimination laws.
He urged minorities to connect their own struggles to challenges faced by refugees, immigrants, the rural poor and transgender Americans, and for the country’s white population to acknowledge that laws that discriminated against African-Americans have effects that endure 50 years after they were abolished.
“So regardless of the station that we occupy; we have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
Obama listed economic achievements such as cutting the number of people who lack health insurance, a growing economy and a lower unemployment rate. But he said those are not enough and that economic inequality hurts the country’s democratic principles.
“While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind,” he said.
Obama told U.S. military members that serving as their commander-in-chief was the honor of his lifetime, and he pointed to successes in the fight against terrorism, including the killing of former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and the ongoing coalition effort against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The president said the United States has to guard against weakening its values in the face of fear, further noting his efforts to ban torture, reform government surveillance laws and close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” Obama said, drawing perhaps his loudest applause of the night.
He said he is more optimistic about the country than when he began his presidency. But he also urged people to take an active role in democracy, saying the system depends on Americans “accepting the responsibility of citizenship regardless of which way the pendulum swings.”
During his 2008 campaign, Obama used as one of his slogans, “Change we can believe in.” He returned to that idea at the end of his address Tuesday.
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours,” Obama said.
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