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Obama's Farewell Address Bookends Troubling Times For Crowd Hungry For Hope

By aaroncynic in News on Jan 11, 2017 9:00PM

It’s fitting President Obama’s emotional and sometimes tearful farewell address in his adopted hometown Tuesday night fell during the same week that Guantanamo Bay turned 15 and his successor held his first official press conference since he was elected to the post in November.

Obama—who was first propelled into the office with the help of millions of younger people, many of whom were fresh faces in American politics—gave a moving and powerful speech touching on what he hopes the history books will see as his legacy. He also urged millions of Americans nervous about the incoming president to hold fast to their values and ideals. Surrounded by 20,000 supporters, Obama said:

“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history. If I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11…if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens - you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”

The crowd, which often had the feel and demeanor of a rock concert—but the type you take your parents to—went wild with applause and cheers, and those in the bleachers stamped their feet. Some chanted "four more years" loudly enough to be heard over live broadcasts of the speech.

The bar indeed, was set pretty low eight years ago after President George W. Bush left Americans with two failed wars, a massive security state caught spying on everyone at home and abroad, an economic crisis manufactured by Wall Street, and prisons that disappeared people indefinitely while torturing them.

Attendees at Obama’s farewell address lauded the President’s successes. For Morgan, a 24 year-old originally from Houston who cast her first ballot for Obama in 2012, his effort to connect with younger generations was what drew him to her.

“For the first time it felt like I was really heard by a president. There was a big push for millennials to participate in elections—I loved being a part of that,” she told Chicagoist.

For Jeanee, a woman originally from Georgia, the president's biggest success was Obamacare: “I have a background in health care so I did see how it really affected the patients, especially ones with preexisting conditions. I was doing claims and it's very disheartening to tell them we won't pay because of preexisting conditions,” she said.

But for all of Obama’s accomplishments in trying to upright a quickly sinking ship, there were still plenty of cracks in its hull that went unrepaired. Wednesday morning marked the 15th anniversary of the opening of the notorious prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 55 men are still held, only 10 of which have been charged with a crime. Despite attempts made by the president over his 8-year term to make good on his promise to close it, he never managed to be able to do so. In fact, for some of the detainees —even those who were never charged with a crime or even cleared for release—closing Guantanamo would not have ended their imprisonment.

“The Obama administration was no different than the Bush administration on this concept—that detention without trial is lawful,” Martha Rayner, a law professor at Fordham University, told the Intercept.

And while Obama made attempts to provide pathways to citizenship for some of the many millions of undocumented persons living in America, one protester pointed out at his address that he also presided over the deportation of more than 2.5 million of them. A newly created Twitter account that purports to be owned by the protester, who held a banner that read “pardon us all,” explained:

A protester unfurls a banner that reads "pardon us all now" at President Barack Obama's farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago. Photo by Tyler Lariviere/Chicagoist

But for all of the available criticism of what our outgoing president will leave behind, what’s ahead for Americans has been a cause for alarm during the transition. Obama touched on this Tuesday night as well, saying that he had committed himself to the “peaceful transfer of power,” but it was “up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.” He also added what felt like more than one albeit hopeful warning, including:

“Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.”

Indeed for many Americans, the next four years presents extreme and troubling times. The rise of Donald Trump to succeed Obama has included the rise of open and even celebrated white supremacy, bigotry, and fascism. While none of that hatred ever disappeared and millions of people of color, non-Christians, women and LGBTQ people faced oppression all around on a daily basis even through the last 8 years, the election of Donald Trump has propelled the type of people who proudly display that hatred to a national stage. Despite this however, Obama said last night that things have gotten better for many in the last few years:

“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago - you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.”

While American democracy has always been troubled and now faces an unpredictable and indeterminable future, the president left the crowd last night with a reminder that it’s up to them to continue fighting for a better future:

“It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.”