Obama warns of threats to American democracy in farewell speech

President Barack Obama offered a warning about giving into fear while urging Americans to recognize shared values and get more involved in working to improve the country.

By Doug G. Ware and Stephen Feller
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his farewell address to a crowd of supporters at McCormick Place in Chicago on January 10, 2017. Photo by David Banks/UPI
1 of 5 | U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his farewell address to a crowd of supporters at McCormick Place in Chicago on January 10, 2017. Photo by David Banks/UPI | License Photo

CHICAGO, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- With 10 days left in the White House, President Barack Obama delivered a farewell address in his hometown of Chicago on Tuesday night, including pleas to the country not to give in to fear while evoking the history of argument giving way to slow progress in the United States.

The president traveled to the Windy City on Tuesday, believing it is the most fitting place to speak to the American people one more time.


"It's good to be home," Obama said through cheers and a long standing ovation. "My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well-wishes we've received over the past few weeks. But tonight it's my turn to say thanks."

RELATED In Photos: 13 memorable Barack Obama speeches

Obama gave his address at McCormick Place, just off to the west of Lake Michigan -- and not far from the place it all started on election night 2008.


Born in Hawaii but a native of Chicago, the president capped off his historic victory in 2008 with a rally at Grant Park, where he promised change -- the central theme of his campaign. Many observers would say he delivered on his pledge in several arenas, from gay rights to foreign policy to universal health care.

"Yes, we can," he said repeatedly during the 2008 campaign, which became a slogan of Obama's youth-oriented bid and his presidency, and which he uttered just twice during the farewell address to the country.

President Barack Obama walks with first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House Tuesday as they depart for Chicago, where the president will give his farewell address to the nation. The speech Tuesday night, at McCormick Place, just west of Lake Michigan, will be Obama's last to the American people. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI

Aides said the speech was meant as a "passing of the baton," which touched on the progress of the last eight years but looked forward to motivating people in the United States to reengage in the democratic process.


Some expected a series of admonitions against President-elect Donald Trump and, while he indirectly criticized some ideas of the incoming Trump administration, Obama put the onus of protecting the country on the backs of all citizens.

"Protecting our way of life requires more than our military," Obama said. "Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are."

Obama offered a list of the successes of his presidency -- reversing the great recession, rebooting the auto industry, maintaining the longest stretch of job creation in history, reopening the door to Cuba, shutting down Iran's nuclear weapons program, killing Osama bin Laden, winning marriage equality and making health insurance more accessible to millions of people, among others -- and noted that some thought "our sights were set a little too high."

RELATED Photos: Obama honored at Armed Forces Farewell Ceremony

Aides said the speech would primarily be a call to action for the next generation of political leaders and Democrats upset with the beating they took in November.


"If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing," Obama said. "If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you'll win. Sometimes you'll lose. 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."

With a focus on "the state of our democracy," Obama stressed the importance of arguing for ideas but figuring out how to compromise, work together and move forward.

"Understand, democracy does not require uniformity," Obama 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; that we rise or fall as one."

Obama suggested a new social compact to guarantee education, help workers unionize to get better wages, update the social safety net and reform the tax code "so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don't avoid their obligations to the country that's made their success possible."


"We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can't be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don't create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come," he said.

Suggesting people emerge from the "bubbles" of neighborhoods, social media and other circles that reinforce what people already think, Obama invoked the fictional character Atticus Finch by quoting him: "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."

Issuing a warning about alienating each other over political disagreements, he referred to George Washington's own farewell speech that alienation should be fought at every turn in order to keep the ties of the country strong -- which he explained as more faith in the ideas of the Constitution, rather than its physical existence.

"It's really just a piece of parchment," Obama said. "It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power -- with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured."


After focusing on faith in the country and the ideas binding her citizens throughout the second half of his speech, Obama invoked his 2008 campaign for the presidency but asked the country, rather than just his supporters, to believe.

"I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change -- but in yours," Obama said.

"I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes we can."

Latest Headlines