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OpEd: President Obama's Farewell: A Siren to Citizenship

After eight years of exceptional leadership, grit and grace and yet we find ourselves once more staring down the barrel of white supremacy.
Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Last night, President Obama ended where it all began—in Chicago, Illinois.

They say you can never go home again, but you would never know that by the standing ovation that lasted a few minutes and then evolved into chants of “4 more years.”

Last night, the President gave his farewell address. These addresses have often been made quickly and quietly from the confines of the White House, with our past two presidents giving a hasty wave and scurrying out the door.

Much like his presidency over the past eight years however, Obama’s farewell speech and its location were like the man himself—bold, full, complex and diverse.

This speech wasn’t so much “farewell, see you later, and thanks for the memories” as it was a reminder of the progress we’ve made as a nation— from 75 months of consecutive job growth to marriage equality to killing Osama bin Laden. It was a direct call-to-action and a lesson in the awesome responsibility of American citizenship.

President Obama remarked:

After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea – our bold experiment in self-government.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.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.

These last few months have served up a level of distrust, angst and anxiety of what it means to be a part of a democracy. What it means to be a shining beacon on a hill—a democracy that should and must be open and available to all people regardless of race, religion, gender identity, gender, country of origin, ability and sexual orientation.

We’ve questioned the legitimacy of our democracy when a presidential candidate can receive 3 million more votes than her opponent and still lose an election.

After eight years of exceptional leadership, grit and grace, we find ourselves once more staring down the barrel of white supremacy.

We’ve had to grapple with the reality that foreign operatives saw fit to tamper with our election and to our horror and dismay watched as our elected officials did little if nothing to address it or reassure us that they cared.

How did we get here? These are the questions and issues that have been looming, hanging over our heads like a bad hangover we can’t shake. President Obama’s address sought to be the remedy we needed or quick fix that we can hang onto like a fading dream--a reminder of our power and inalienable rights, and that it was us that made him possible, our belief that we can and are better together.

“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. 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,” President Obama proclaimed.

Image: President Barack Obama gives his presidential farewell address
President Barack Obama gives his presidential farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago on Jan. 10, 2017.Nam Y. Huh / AP

American history should have prepared us for this moment. With every reconstruction of America beginning with the Civil War and the brief rebuilding efforts that followed, the opponents of change have always dug in hard and held tight to what they perceived as a loss of power. We saw it again, post the civil rights movement when we ushered in another celebrity whose policies would upend black families and communities while building the prison industrial complex system on petty crimes and the crack epidemic.

But after eight years of exceptional leadership, grit and grace, we find ourselves once again staring down the barrel of white supremacy and renewed nationalism that would place our entire American project at risk.

What President Obama urged us to remember last night, wasn’t just his record of accomplishments; but what We the People, can accomplish and build together when we are steadfast in our ideals and belief that we can be the change we want to see in the world.

The president continued:

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. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

Preserving and expanding our democracy doesn’t fall in the hands of one leader its falls on all of us. No one man or woman can upend 240 years of progress in creating a more perfect union unless we give up our power knowingly and willingly. We are a government for and by the people not a fiefdom.

Obama Thanks First Family

Jan. 11, 201702:55

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.

These last few months have been unsettling and unnerving. It can be argued that we haven’t even seen the bottom yet; but history also reminds us that we’ve been in this place before—but never have we had so many tools, so much access and knowledge at our disposal.

For whatever you believe, this is an incredible time to be alive—to be a citizen, to have a voice regardless of who you are, who you love or how you worship. As the president exclaimed last night, it’s time to “Show up. Dive in. Persevere.”

The resistance begins now.