Editorial: Obama’s farewell inspiring, hopeful

Thursday, January 12, 2017

President Obama put the finishing touches on his presidency this week with his farewell speech to some 18,000 people in Chicago. But while the speech was rich with inspirational words and examples of his accomplishments as president, a cloud of uncertainty about what was to come loomed over much of it.

A defining moment came early, as Obama described his time as a young community organizer in Chicago. Voices in the crowd began chanting “four more years.” Obama addressed that with the reality that so many of his supporters are reluctant to face. “I can’t do that,” he said.

Obama’s time as president is up, and he will be replaced Jan. 20 by Donald Trump.

As Obama pointed out, the past eight years are marked by some impressive accomplishments for the nation — approval of the Affordable Care Act, the reversal of the Great Recession, ushering in the longest period of job creation in the nation’s history, passage of marriage equality, stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

But what he did not say is that his time in office was also a period that weakened the Democratic Party at every level of government: in the statehouses, governors’ mansions, Congress, and now the presidency.

“For every two steps forward it often feels we take one step back,” the president said. “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.”

While speaking to many in the audience who no doubt see the Trump presidency as one of those big steps back, Obama tried to show his followers the path forward.

Obama focused on the state of the nation’s democracy, which he said is dependent on economic opportunity for all, not just those at the top; on upholding laws against discrimination of all types; on trying to understand people who come from different backgrounds than we do; on basing our political debates on facts and evidence rather than all-too-prevalent fake news; and, above all, not taking democracy for granted.

We hope that our political discourse will be based on people listening to and trying to understand one another and being discerning in the information they use to make decisions, while holding accountable those people in positions of power.

As his time in office winds down, we are reminded that Obama has been not only an extraordinary president, but an excellent role model as a leader and a human being. One of the defining moments of his presidency was in June 2015, during his eulogy for slain Charleston, S.C., pastor Clementa Pinckney, when he sang a heartfelt “Amazing Grace.”

Obama was never able to get comprehensive gun control legislation passed, which was a top priority for him through the shootings in Charleston, Sandy Hook, and many other tragedies, but he did speak to the nation with that moving eulogy, a truly unifying moment.

His farewell address did not have a moment to match that one, but it sounded an overarching theme important for Americans to remember as we transition to the next president — that we must hold onto our ideals, as people and as a nation.

“ISIL will try to kill innocent people, but they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight,” Obama said. “Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world unless we give up what we stand for and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.”

And here the president plans to lead by example by fully participating in an American democratic hallmark: the peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to another.

Though Trump is among the last people to whom Obama wants to hand over the keys to the Oval Office and the military’s nuclear codes, the president does so because of his principled belief in American democracy.

We will miss Obama’s presidency, but we expect he will continue to have an impact as he continues on in the role he calls the highest in the nation: citizen.