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.”
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!