Last night, President Obama made his farewell address in front of thousands of people in a hall in Chicago. The farewell address is a great tradition for U.S. presidents in their last days as leader. It is a speech where they get to look back on their time in office, as well as offer hope for the future of the country.
Chicago was a perfect choice for Obama because it was were he got his start in politics as a U.S. senator. For his many supporters, this address was both a joyous and sad event. Joy to celebrate the eight years that he spent as the country's first black president. And sadness because, in 10 days time, he will no longer be the leader.
For his part, Obama sensed these mixed emotions. He also acknowledged the political divisions across the country. He used much of his speech to talk about what he learned as president and why it allows him to remain hopeful about America's future.
"The peaceful transfer of power"
Ever since Donald Trump was elected in November, Obama has talked about the importance of the "peaceful transfer of power". He did that again last night, too. Why does this mean so much? Simply put, not every country gets to elect its new leader. There are still countries around the world where the only way leaders change is through violence, not voting. The 2016 U.S. election was a very bitter one. But it was still one decided by votes, and that's important.
"The peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected President to the next," he said in the speech, "I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me."
He asked people disappointed in the result of that election to step back and see the larger picture of history. "For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion." But he also warned people that "our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted." He even made a joke about people fighting on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, saying, "if you're tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life." His message to people upset about the state of politics was that they should get involved themselves.
"Show up. Dive in. Stay at it," he stated.
Obama praised many people in his speech. He thanked his whole staff, especially Vice President Joe Biden, calling him "a brother" and saying that their families had become strong friends. He thanked his children, Malia and Sasha (who wasn't there because she was studying for an exam this morning!). And he thanked his wife, Michelle, saying "you have been my best friend. You took on a role you didn't ask for and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and good humour. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody." It was a moment where many, including the president himself, were crying—and a reminder that for many, Michelle was as important a figure in the White House as her husband was.
But the words that we'd like to leave you with are addressed to you. (Yes, you!) Obama made it clear why he is most optimistic about the future of America, and it's a political message that matters in other places, too. His belief comes from the country's youth. "Let me tell you, this generation coming up—unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I've seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America.... You'll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands."
In the end, no matter what you believe in, that's pretty hard to argue with, right? Or as he said a little bit later in the speech, "I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours."