In the suburbs: A farewell address I won’t forget
Nearly eight years after sweeping the country with his election and victory mantra of “Yes, we can,” Barack Hussein Obama, who became our first African-American president, said goodbye on Jan. 10 at McCormick Place in Chicago to more than 20,000 well-wishers. As the president delivered his powerful farewell speech, a tradition initiated by our first president, George Washington, my wife and I reflected on that first night in November 2008 as Obama, standing tall and proud with Michelle and his then two little girls, Sasha and Malia, spoke of his hope for change.
Just before the speech began, one of our favorite newscasters, Rachel Maddow, of MSNBC, reminded us even as Obama was being nominated in the summer of 2008, he was kind of a “small ‘p’ ” for popular kind of guy, and many in power wondered whether he would ever achieve the popularity of other presidents. She said during his energetic campaign, he really proved to be a “different kind of connector,” and that technique has certainly been successful many times over the course of Obama’s eight years.
There was little doubt on the night of the president’s farewell address that Obama had become a capital “P” over the course of his presidency. Maddow said President Obama is leaving office with an incredibly positive approval rating, and she believes he will go down in history as one of our greatest presidents. I couldn’t agree more.
Michelle Obama has made her mark as one of our great first ladies. She has earned the respect of the nation for the honesty, dignity and elegance she brought into the White House.
Despite Obama’s powerful early days as president — where he reversed the Great Recession, contributed to the rebuilding of the automobile industry, succeeded in jump-starting a huge economic recovery that resulted in one of the longest stretches of job growth in history, and pushed through a massive health care package, among other achievements — the past eight years have not always been pretty.
Obama alluded to his less-than-successful dealings with Congress, noted racial issues remain “potent and divisive problems in our society, and we’re not where we need to be.”
While Obama touted success in keeping terrorists from perpetrating major disasters in our country, there has been some well-founded criticism about the way he and the administration have handled the entire human rights tragedies in Syria. The same can be said about several other foreign policy issues.
With dignity and without attacking our incoming president, Obama charged all Americans to attain the highest office in the land: citizenship. He declared his personal intention to do just that. In a somewhat lighthearted fashion, he told his audience and those of us watching to get involved. If you don’t like what our politicians are doing, the president pointed out, “lace up your shoes and get out there.”
Among other high points that I took away from his speech were Obama’s numerous comments about the responsibility of citizenship and respect for democracy. For example, he said democracy does not require uniformity, but it does require solidarity, and democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear.
Obama said we must all work as one to maintain democracy. Reflecting about the recent political campaign and speaking about America’s “boundless capacity for reinvention,” he said, “That potential will be realized only if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need now.”
President Obama reminded his audience America’s creed should be to embrace all, not just some. He urged America to welcome all immigrants and spoke about how the Irish, Poles and other early immigrants made their own mark on our country.
In his farewell address, Obama spoke as he always does — with confidence and power. I will miss all of that. Though he has stumbled and made the mistakes that any strong leader makes these past eight years, I have never lost faith or respect in this man who hails from our hometown, Chicago.
My only disappointment is he hasn’t been able to finish all the work he hoped to accomplish. But perhaps he will do more of that as citizen Obama, and we’ll be glad to stand with him on tough issues. We wish the Obamas only the best as they begin the next chapter in their lives.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.