The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama’s farewell speech was a remarkable pep talk on democracy

President Obama delivered his farewell remarks at McCormick Place in Chicago. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

President Obama's farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday night was less a recitation of accomplishments than a reassurance of future stability — a vote of confidence and calm for a party still reeling from the results of an election that threaten to undermine what many Democrats spent the past eight years building.

“I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic than when I started,” Obama told thousands of supporters gathered in his adopted hometown. “You changed the world. You did.”

That relentless optimism — that everything he, his administration and his supporters fought for meant something (and will continue to mean something) — was suffused throughout a speech that effectively functioned as the final chapter of the Obama presidency.

Time and again, Obama seemed to take on the role of reassurer-in-chief, insisting that history rarely moves in a straight line forward, and that while the election of Donald Trump might seem anomalous, it was really just a part of the broader march of progress.

“Yes, our progress has been uneven,” Obama said. “For every one step forward it often feels like we take two steps back.” The solution to that disappointment, Obama argued, was not to burrow inward but to bloom outward — to stand up forcefully for what you believe in by re-engaging with the democracy that had let so many of those in attendance down.

President Obama gave his goodbye address to his home town of Chicago on Jan. 10. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” Obama said, in his best line of the night. “All of us should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our Democratic institutions.” At another point, he noted: “We all have to try harder.”

To that end, Obama urged people to volunteer. To organize. To run for office in their own right. To swap social media fights for in-person conversations.

That Obama felt compelled to give a speech that functioned as a defense of the basic principles — and enduring strengths — of our democracy speaks to the political climate in which he took the stage for a final time on Tuesday night. In the hours leading up to the Obama speech, details emerged of unsubstantiated reports regarding a long-term effort by Russia to acquire compromising information about the president-elect.

For Democrats, that was only the latest sign of the danger posed by the man who will succeed Obama in 10 days time. Evidence of that anxiety and fear was everywhere. Loud boos broke out when Obama touted the peaceful transition of power that was set to happen in a little over a week. Chants of “four more years!” rained down early in the speech. (Obama joked that he “couldn't do that.")

The solution Obama offered was the same one he had touted since a frigid day in Springfield, Ill., in early 2007: True democracy isn't about the leaders, it's about the people. Only you can change the world you live in. I'll be there with you, but you need to do it for yourself. “Yes we can,” he said in the speech's final moments. “Yes we did.”

The arc of that message is one no one could have foreseen. The country's first black president elected and reelected. Then the election of a man whose entire existence runs counter to the ideas Obama tried to raise up over the past eight years. What Obama seemed to be saying is that if I can do this — hand the baton to Trump — then you sure as hell can do your part to ensure the continued vibrancy our political system.

Democracy, he argued, depends on it.