A little more than 8 years ago I did something I’d never done before, and voted for a Democrat for president. For a born-and-raised Republican, this was a big step. But there was something about this man that was special. He talked in an inspiring way about hope that we hadn’t heard from politicians in quite a while. And there was something special about electing America’s first black president.
I remember sitting at home watching President-Elect Obama give an acceptance speech before a massive crowd at Grant Park in Chicago. It seemed like a turning point of sorts, a reason to be hopeful about our political situation.
Now by any measure there are gripes each of us would have with the policies and decisions President Obama has made over the past 8 years. Politics is the art of the compromise. If everyone comes away from the table feeling like they got some of, but not all of, what they wanted, the process probably worked. Now, depending on your political convictions, you may have agreed with most of what he did, or only a little of what he did, but such is the nature of politics.
Tonight President Obama, a week before leaving office, again gave a Chicago speech, but this time a farewell speech. And what a speech it was.
President Obama called us as Americans to pursue the higher, nobler, goals of sacrifice for, and service to others. And he spoke clearly about our need to see the world from the perspective of our neighbors. Forgive a long quoted section, but it’s so good:
But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character 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.”
For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.
We have to pay attention and listen.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.
So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.
And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.
And we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on pre-school for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?
How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.
That’s good stuff right there. As my friend Keith said:
President Obama has also traversed eight years of service as a dedicated and loving father and husband. His words at the end of the speech tonight were enough to have any father in tears:
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson of the South Side…
… 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 you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style, and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model.
You have made me proud, and you have made the country proud.
Malia and Sasha…
… under the strangest of circumstances you have become two amazing young women. You are smart and you are beautiful. But more importantly, you are kind and you are thoughtful and you are full of passion.
And you wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily. Of all that I have done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad.
The “Thanks, Obama” meme has been around for almost the entire duration of Obama’s presidency. Originally used to sarcastically “thank” the president for anything deemed to be his fault, it quickly grew to blame him for things he had no hand in. In the past couple of years I’ve seen folks of a more liberal stripe using it more ironically, which seems like it’s come full circle in a way.
But tonight I’d like to say it quite genuinely. Thanks, Obama. Thanks, Mr. President. Our country is better off because of your service, and we are all better for your example of service and faithfulness.