I will never forget the night of November 8, 2008. I can recount, verbatim, the opening lines of Present-elect Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park. It is a speech that I have watched countless times over the past eight years, and still draw inspiration from. But I wasn’t there…
I was, at the time, twenty-two years old and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working at my first job since graduating college the previous May. I remember debating with myself constantly throughout election day whether or not to hop in the car and make the four-hour trip west to witness what would be one of the most historic moments in our country’s history. In the end, I decided that skipping work the next day was not responsible, and watching history unfold on TV would be an acceptable alternative. Indeed, while I will never forget what I witnessed from my couch that night, I have regretted my decision to not be there in person ever since.
Last week, however, I got a chance at redemption. A dear friend of mine, who happens to be a close friend of the Obamas, invited my wife and me to attend the President’s Farewell Address on January 10 in Chicago surrounded by Obama staffers and veterans of both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity, and it was a night that I will never forget.
It is truly an amazing thing to witness, in person, a hero of yours, a sitting president, an incredible orator, a humble, graceful, and stoic leader of the free world give his final major speech in front of a screaming, tearful crowd in his hometown. I had chills down my back throughout, and feel them even now as I relive it in my mind.
But, like myself in 2008, you needn’t have had to be in Chicago ‘s McCormick Place Convention Center on January 10 to heed the advice of the outgoing president or to understand the critical task with which he has entrusted all of us to undertake.
Barack Obama gave more than eight years in the prime of his life, and in the heart of his two daughter’s childhoods, to serve his country. During this time, he not only helped to save the economy, create millions of new jobs, provide healthcare to tens of millions of Americans who didn’t have it before, and put us on a path to energy independence and climate recovery, but he also made us a more inclusive, more compassionate, more respectful of each other, and more respected worldwide. He reminded us that we must remember to picture what it is like to walk in the footsteps of others before judging them, and to not think of people that look and sound different than us as any less worthy of the opportunities that our country can offer.
In his Farewell Address, even in this sharply divisive time for our country, he left us with his same messages of inclusivity, hope, and confidence in America’s future that he began with eight years ago. Only now, the task is ours to pick up where he left off, and ensure that our country, in fact, upholds the ideals that he helped to instill. It is up to us to keep these values as a central tenor of our national identity, even when some – elected leaders included – threaten to tear them apart.
His parting message to the nation was a call to arms for all citizens. A call to take part in the political process. To show up. To run for office. To rely on facts, not fiction that we happen to think sounds good. To talk to those with whom we don’t agree. To argue over the best way to accomplish our goals, but to never lose sight of that fact that our common goals remain more important than our differing views on how to get there. To never forget that democracy is not guaranteed, but something that takes hard work from all of us to maintain. To remember that our Constitution, while brilliant, “has no power on its own.” That “We, the people, give it power…with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”
As we take stock of our country at this time of change and uncertainty, as bitterly divided and angry as it can seem, we must remember this message from our outgoing president: That, as has always been the case in the history of America, we share a common, interconnected fate that will only be realized if we move forward together… If our big, diverse, and constantly-evolving nation works as one entity, not factions of differing and warring ones. We must seize the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a great president, grab the baton that he passed to us in his Farewell Address, and declare in unison “Yes we can.” If that can’t get us, as a country, “fired up!” and “ready to go!” I don’t know what will.