Outgoing US president Barack Obama delivered a nearly hour-long farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday evening that is still stirring emotions. While it started on a somewhat academic note, by the very end it had swelled into the oratory style that had propelled Obama to the White House, and much of the live audience and those watching at home seemed to be in tears.
Thousands of viewers have left emotional thanks on the White House’s Facebook post of the speech and other broadcasts, many of them using words like “heartbroken.” While there’s also plenty of “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” sentiment coming from his critics, most viewers seem overwhelmingly sad to see him go.
Why did his farewell speech leave some American citizens so upset?
Ad-libbing, he referred to Michelle Obama as “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side” and called her his “best friend,” while wiping away tears of his own. “You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and with grit and with style and good humor,” he said, as the 25,000-strong crowd gave her a standing ovation.
Even his daughter Malia wiped away a tear. And when Obama continued to thank his daughters by saying, “Of all that I’ve done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad,” many parents watching welled up.
Just hours before Obama’s farewell address, reports were published that the US’s top intelligence officials briefed Obama and incoming president Donald J. Trump on the existence of unconfirmed Russian intelligence reports claiming Trump had been compromised. They contained graphic allegations of misconduct in a Moscow hotel that have not been substantiated. While the reports describe allegations so malicious and as to be almost unbelievable, US intelligence officials apparently consider the idea that Trump could be blackmailed by Russian intelligence credible enough to share it with the president and president elect.
Just eight years ago, when Obama was first elected, the US seemed to be mapping a new course of integration and tolerance.
Now Americans have been fed such a relentless diet of fake news in recent months and years that even decent, kind, citizens have become immune to facts, and rabidly partisan. The level of discourse on social media is so nasty that complete strangers regularly insult each other in the vilest way possible. Democrats mourning Obama’s departure are mocked for crying “liberal tears,” while Trump supporters are labeled as “Trumptards.” Overt racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are on the rise. Do Americans really hate each other this much?
The obstructionism waged by Obama’s opposition, which openly said it wanted to make Obama a failed president, has left the US missing a Supreme Court judge and dozens of important government appointees. The Senate and House of Representatives are so divided now that both veteran Republicans and Democrats decry the lack of civil bipartisan discourse, and despair at how they might repair that going forward.
A Republican-led Congress seems hellbent on the destruction of Obama’s legacy, at the expense of US citizens. In one of the most stark examples, after Obama leaves office, the very first act of the new Congress is expected to be to repeal the Affordable Care Act, yanking health insurance from the more than 20 million people enrolled—despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t support the repeal without a replacement plan, and it could cost more than $150 billion.
Nonetheless, Obama exhorted “democracy” twenty times during his speech, and, in the rousing finish, called on Americans, especially the young ones, to “carry this hard work of democracy forward”:
I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.
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.
Sometimes, there’s no simple answer.