CHICAGO (CBSNewYork/CBS Chicago/AP) — President Barack Obama addressed the state of American democracy, and what must be done to maintain it for the future, as he headed back to his longtime hometown of Chicago to give one final speech.
He recalled coming to Chicago as a community organizer in the 1980s when he was in his early 20s, “still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life.”
He talked about what he learned working with struggling Chicagoans in the shadow of old the steel on the city’s Far South Side.
“It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss,” Obama said. “This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.”
At one point early in the speech, the crowd began chanting, “Four more years! Four more years!”
Obama replied, “I can’t do that.”
But Obama said he still believed in change coming about through the efforts of everyday Americans.
“It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Obama said. “It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.”
Obama said it was Americans’ sacrifices, efforts and cooperation that made the nation succeed.
“Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow,” he said.
Obama went on to outline the major changes and achievements that took place while he was in office.
“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,” Obama said.
But instead, Obama said since all of those things happened, “by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
Obama went on to say he had committed to President-elect Donald Trump that his administration would make the transition as smooth as possible, just as President George W. Bush had done for him. But he said things would only continue to go smoothly if American democracy went on working.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same,” Obama said. “But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
Obama said many past moments have threatened to rupture American solidarity, and the country must go on meeting challenges.
For one, Obama said, democracy will not work without everyone having a sense of economic opportunity. And as it is, Obama said the economy is growing again, the wealthy are paying “a fairer share of taxes,” the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has also never been lower, Obama said.
Still, inequality is a serious problem, Obama said.
“While the top one 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.
He added that the next wave of economic woe will not come from overseas, but from “the relentless pace of automation” that will make many jobs obsolete.
“And so we must forge a new social compact – to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible,” Obama said.
Obama addressed a number of issues that continue to trouble America, and warned that they cannot be ignored. Among them, he said, was racism and a lack of racial justice.
Obama said while race relations have been on a trend of improvement, “we’re not where we need to be.”
He said the country cannot afford to “decline to invest in the children of immigrants,” and said Americans must fight against discrimination in hiring, housing, education and the criminal justice system.
Obama invoked Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in his call for greater understanding and empathy.
“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 said.
Obama also said the nation cannot afford to claim that climate change is a hoax or a myth.
“Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders,” Obama said.
He said if no action is taken, future generations will not be have the luxury to debate whether climate change is real because they will be busy dealing with “environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”
Obama also issued warnings about threats to democracy stemming from giving in to fear. He noted that tens of thousands of terrorists had been taken out on his watch – including Osama bin Laden – and he said ISIS will be destroyed.
Still, Obama said, “democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” and thus Americans must guard against the weakening of their values.
“That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans. That’s why we cannot withdraw from global fights – to expand democracy, and human rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights – no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem,” Obama said.
Obama also said Russia and China cannot match American influence in the world, “unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.”
Finally, Obama said American democracy is threatened when it is taken for granted. He said with one of the lowest voting rates among advanced democracies, the country must make it easier – and not harder – to vote. He said the country also must reduce “the corrosive influence of money in our politics,” and draw districts so that politicians are led to “cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.”
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law,” Obama said. “America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
He called on Americans to take action – and beyond the internet.
“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,” Obama said. “Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose.”
Obama went on to honor his family – wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha, and Vice President Joe Biden, “the scrappy kid from Scranton who became Delaware’s favorite son.”
Obama also honored all of those who carried him to the White House.
“To all of you out there – every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town and kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change – you are the best supporters and organizers anyone could hope for, and I will forever be grateful. Because yes, you changed the world,” Obama said.
Obama said he was “even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started.” But he urged Americans to go on believing in their own ability to take on the future.
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Can,” Obama said.
Obama’s speech at McCormick Place was preceded by a performance from rock musician Eddie Vedder. Attendees included a “who’s who” of Chicago and Illinois politics, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former Obama chief of staff.
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