‘Yes We Did’: Obama Declares Faith in Power of Change
His address served as a fitting bookend to what he started in Chicago – the city where he ran for office and started a family
In his parting message to the nation, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his faith in the ability of all Americans to bring about national change, despite the trials that so often stood between him and his goals during his time in office.
"Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back," Obama said in front of a crowd of about 18,000 people. "But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some."
With just ten days left in his second term as president, Obama returned to Chicago to reflect on his unlikely path to the Oval Office and share his gratitude with the nation.
"My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well-wishes we’ve received over the past few weeks," he began. "But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks."
Obama touched on his origins as a community organizer on the city’s South Side who witnessed "the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss." He argued change is only possible "when ordinary people get involved" and join forces to demand progress.
Eight years later, "I still believe that," Obama said, continuing on to detail some of his accomplishments that he said seemed nearly unattainable prior to his term.
"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," he said, "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."
"But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started."
He went on to discuss the upcoming shift to President-elect Donald Trump's administration, saying he is committed to ensuring “the smoothest possible transition,” just as his predecessor, President George W. Bush, did for him.
"In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy," Obama said to the first jeers of the evening. "No, no, no," he admonished the crowd, "the peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected president to the next."
Obama’s legacy hangs in the balance, as Republicans move forward with plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, his chief legislative accomplishment, leaving uncertainty as to what other policies may remain. But in his final address, he reiterated a call he has made countless times before to support his signature health care plan – this time, adding a new twist.
“The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years,” he said, as cheers from the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. “If anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system – that covers as many people at less cost – I will publicly support it.”
Obama also addressed race in America, a topic that has continually plagued the first black president throughout his term.
“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,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum,” he said, adding though that the country is “not where we need to be” and more work remains.
“If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce,” he said, invoking Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” to plead for empathy.
"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."
That call for empathy was woven throughout the rest of his speech, as Obama cautioned against partisanship and called for Americans to engage outside their “bubbles.”
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life,” he implored to laughter, before reiterating his hope in America’s promise that he said has propelled him throughout his time in office.
“That faith I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change – that faith has been rewarded in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined,” he said.
His address served as a fitting bookend to what he started in Chicago – the city where he taught constitutional law, registered voters, ran for office and started a family. More than 20 years after a young Obama first arrived in Chicago, it was here in Grant Park that he stepped onstage to deliver his victory speech in 2008, with first lady Michelle Obama at his side.
It was that first lady, the Chicago native, who received perhaps the most resounding standing ovation of the night.
“Michelle Lavaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side,” he said. “For the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend."
“You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor,” he added, wiping tears from his eyes. “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody.”
He thanked Vice President Joe Biden, who was in attendance along with wife Dr. Jill Biden, saying he was “the first choice I made as a nominee, and the best.”
Obama also praised his daughters Malia and Sasha for their dignity and growth “under the strangest of circumstances” – taking time to reflect on the women they have become since they were first introduced to the world as young children begging their father for a puppy.
As the Obama family has evolved over his time in office, so too, of course, has the world – and in particular, the city he calls home.
Obama addressed a very different Chicago on Tuesday than he left in 2008, one that is far bloodier than the city that lifted its son to the White House. Chicago saw at least 762 homicides and more than 4,331 shooting victims in 2016 – the highest number in not only his eight years in office, but the most in two decades, according to police.
“What is it about Chicago that has caused an increase in homicides that we’re just not seeing in most other big cities across the country?” he mused to NBC5’s Carol Marin in a one-on-one interview last week. “It appears to be a combination of factors, the nature of gang structures or lack of structure in Chicago, the way police are allocated, in some cases the need for more police, the ease of accessibility of guns, pockets of poverty that are highly segregated,” he added.
And as he spoke Tuesday, the Justice Department is preparing to release a report on the Chicago Police Department following a year-long probe launched after dashcam video of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was released, sparking public outcry and calls for Obama’s former White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel to resign his post as Chicago’s mayor.
Reflecting once again on the city’s spike in violence, Obama said, “I don’t think that there’s one reason and I don’t think there’s a silver bullet answer to it, but I do think it will be incumbent on all of us to really work on this.”
Chicagoans, and the nation, saw more of that rhetoric, another call-to-action as his successor prepares to take office.
As he did in the 2004 keynote address that propelled him into the national spotlight, as he has done throughout his term, and again in the days following the 2016 presidential election, Obama delivered a final plea for unity, faith and hope on Tuesday.
“I do have one final ask of you as your president – the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago,” he said. “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”
“Yes we can,” he reiterated one last time to the roars of an emotional crowd. “Yes we did. Yes we can.”
The 10th anniversary of Obama’s Springfield speech announcing his candidacy will arrive exactly one month from his farewell – a moment of reflection that leaves many wondering what the next four, eight and 10 years may bring.