The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Obama to Americans: No one’s going to defend democracy for you

President Obama speaks during his farewell address on Tuesday at McCormick Place in Chicago. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

There was always a double meaning to “Yes we can,” Barack Obama’s 2008 catchphrase that reappeared near the end of his Tuesday night farewell address. In this democracy, Americans have the power to succeed, but we bear responsibility if we fail. And, oh boy, do we have some explaining to do.

More than eight years after it propelled him to the White House, President Obama recapitulated this message, both empowering and demanding, in what may be the last decent thing we will hear from the president of the United States for a while.

Obama’s address was at once an inspiring declaration that change need not be feared; an indictment of the lard and laziness of our political culture, in which partisanship and cynicism are mistaken for virtues and the only pertinent question is who’s to blame; and an expression of faith that a rising generation of Americans — one that is “unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic” — would be wiser and more public-spirited than the failed baby-boom generation has been.

Obama repeatedly charged Americans themselves with the upkeep of their democracy. The republic weakens, he said, “when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.” He lamented the “sorting” of Americans into bubbles that enable us to interact with — or even respect — only like-minded people. And he condemned the seductive pessimism that writes off “the whole system as inevitably corrupt.” No shadowy forces, not even the Russians, are imposing these trends on Americans. Americans themselves are undermining their democracy.

“For all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy, citizen,” Obama said.

“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.”

So what will Obama do when he leaves the Oval Office to join the rest of us in the most exalted station in the land? Near the end of his speech, he offered a promise: that in these unusual political times, he will not just fade away as other ex-presidents have done. “I won’t stop,” he pledged. “I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.”

Obama did not talk much about policy. But the specifics he did mention suggest a post-presidency devoted to fighting some of the forces corroding the nation’s politics. “When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes,” he said. Expect Obama to push redistricting reform, an un-sexy issue that nevertheless deserves a lot more attention. Politicians should be put out of the business of choosing their own voters.

Obama also spent a great deal of time arguing that the nation will decline if its political debate is not connected to “some common baseline of facts.” And his headlining example was climate change. “Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects,” Obama said. “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.” There will be more of this, too, from Obama in the coming years.

In a more rational era, these would be the sorts of issues that transcend political factions and to which it would be entirely seemly for an ex-president to devote his time. These days, it is much more likely that Obama will simply be accused of engaging in a partisan post-presidency. Unless, that is, Americans heed Obama’s call to reason and resist the rising forces of grievance, reaction and fact-denial. Yes, we can. And if we don’t, we are responsible for the consequences.