WASHINGTON ― President Barack Obama on Tuesday issued a rallying cry to preserve and protect U.S. democracy, urging Americans to remain “vigilant, but not afraid” and to reject complacency and fear.
Obama had billed his farewell address ― his final public speech as president ― as a path forward under President-elect Donald Trump. While the speech contained the kind of soaring and optimistic rhetoric that has characterized Obama’s political career, it also included warnings that appeared indirectly aimed at Trump, of trends he called “corrosive to our democratic principles.”
“We remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth and drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention mean that the future should be ours,” Obama said. “But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of the our people. Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”
Obama only mentioned Trump by name early in the speech, noting his commitment to the transition of power. But many of his cautions appeared directed at his successor, particularly his reminder that “democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” and his apparent references to Trump’s campaign of divisiveness and fearmongering against minority groups.
Obama framed his address as a prescription for democracy. He said threats to the country’s foundation include income inequality, racism and bigotry, political polarization, the jettisoning of facts and reason in political discourse, and low levels of civic engagement.
Invoking George Washington’s farewell address, Obama said “we should reject ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.”
“We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent,” Obama said. “We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others, when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
On foreign policy, Obama cautioned against isolationism and the rise of nationalism ― another veiled criticism of Trump.
“For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression,” he said. “If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”
Obama said all of the threats he outlined feed the lack of civic engagement and undermine faith in American democracy.
“While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind ― the laid-off factory worker, the waitress and health care worker who struggle to pay the bills ― convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful, a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics,” Obama said.
Obama said “democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity” and urged empathy from all Americans, regardless of race or class.
“If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, ‘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.’”
Obama ended his address by urging young people to get involved in politics and public service, just as his historic presidential candidacy in 2008 inspired a generation of public servants and organizers. Obama has said that his post-presidential plans will include returning to his roots as a community organizer and focusing on improving the Democratic Party on a local and state level.
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” he said. “Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you.”
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