Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Two Steps Forward One Step Back: Threats to Democracy and Optimism in Obama's Farewell Speech

In a moving farewell speech, President Barack Obama drew on the Constitution using the words and invoking the spirit of the founding fathers to speak to the most important issues of our day. Just over eight years ago the 44th President of the United States and the first African American, assumed power. On January 10th 2017 just days before President-Elect Trump assumes power, President Obama delivered a powerful yet respectful final address as commander and chief. He warned about threats to democracy and urged Americans to stand up and fight for the changes they seek.

Among Obama’s long list of accomplishments he singled out his management of the recession, job creation, new relations with Cuba, Iran nuclear deal, taking out Osama Bin Laden, support for marriage equality and healthcare.

Here is a review of some of the salient points made by President Obama in his farewell address.  This includes acknowledging diverging views, respecting science, accepting global warming, realizing the dangers of money and politics, protecting democracy, supporting change and maintaining optimism.

Echo chambers and truth

President Obama referenced the divisions that have taken hold this electoral cycle when he called us to acknowledge diverging views. He pointed to the fact that we are increasingly locked into echo chambers that make us receptive to fake news. Obama made the point that we need to acknowledge a fair point even if it comes from our opponents he also said that “science and reason matter.”
“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.”

As though issuing a warning to both politicians and purveyors of fake news, he said, “reality has a way of catching up with you.” He went on to say that US power as being predicated on an “independent press.” In an apparent reference to his frustration with social media bubbles he said:

“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”

Climate Change

As expected Obama spoke to climate change which he sees as his chief legacy issue. “Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement that (at) the promise to save this planet."

President Obama expressed grave concerns about the dangers of not doing more to slow warming global temperatures. Failure to act will have grave consequences for our children. As Obama explained:

“But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects. More environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary. “

He also made a statement that appears to be squarely directed at the climate denial of the President-Elect and his team.

“Now we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.” Obama said.

Corrosive Money and Politics

President warned against, “the corrosive influence of money in our politics” and spoke to the virtues of transparency and ethics. In a veiled reference to obstructionism, he called on people to push lawmakers to have common sense. Without calling him out by name he referenced Trump’s “corrosive” approach to politics.

However, he also suggested that we should be cautious not to tar everyone with the same brush. “When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”


President Obama waxed poetic on the value of the US democracy and the importance of people breathing life into the Constitution. He called Americans to jealously protect their democracy from those who would destroy it.

He spoke about the need for healthy debate as part of the democratic process and he further suggested that it is wrong to have malevolence towards those who espouse different views. In words that will resonate with those struggling to come to terms with the forthcoming Trump administration, he said:

“Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”

Obama stressed the importance of our efforts to uphold and protect the institution of democracy and the overarching equality of all people. He emphasized economic and racial inequality as divisive forces that threaten democracy. He spoke of the need to end discrimination through laws but also through a change of heart and that he intimated can only be fully achieved through empathy. He also talked about the need for political compromise.

We cannot afford to take our democracy for granted, Obama said.  He characterized this as a threat that weakens democracy and he called for a bipartisan effort to rebuild democratic institutions.
“But, protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are…No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened…So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.”

In a comment that could be construed as being directed towards Republican voter suppression, President Obama said,

“When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote.”

Change and Optimism

He ended his address with a stirring and hopeful message that seemed to be the perfect response to the dour mood of so many, Obama did a masterful job of buoying our hopes with a soaring account of our capacity for change. However, he repeatedly stated that for change to occur people will need to get involved.
“change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it…So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. 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 also said America is being challenged by those who fear change, “violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam. More recently by autocrats in foreign capitals.”  He reviewed how change is a constant in American political life and this is what helped him to become president.

“So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined…to all of you out there…every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change — you are the best supporters and organizers anybody could ever hope for, and I will forever be grateful. Because you did change the world.

President Obama explained that his optimism was buoyed by the young:
“Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace,” Obama said. “[The young will] carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”
Obama concluded his remarks with a call for Americans to believe in change:
“I am 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. Yes, we did. Yes, we can."

His optimism was a welcome reprieve from the dark mood that permeates much of the country. “And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. believe that you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves,” Obama said.

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