Obama, eight years later: ‘Yes we can, yes we did’

By Arabella Breck

President Barack Obama started and ended his final presidential speech applauding and encouraging the continual political involvement of American citizens, 18,000 of whom attended the Chicago farewell, according to Deputy Fire Commissioner Ariel Gray, and stood by him as they had for the last eight years.

Breaking from tradition of previous presidential farewell addresses in Washington D.C. such as ones from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama returned “home,” to the city where he started his activism and political career in his twenties and held his speech Jan. 10 at McCormick Place, 2301 S. King Drive.

“Whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart… I am asking you to believe,” Obama said. “Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.”

Even as the audience listened to his last words as president, their love affair with the country’s first African-American president continued.

“I always supported him—ever since he was a senator in Illinois to now… He is one of my biggest idols,” said Ike Okeke, a 29-year-old sales analyst from the South Side who attended the farewell address.

Obama thanked the crowd several times before it quieted down and he could begin his farewell address, but even after he started, Obama was intermittently interrupted by attendees cheering, “We love you Obama” and “Four more years.”

“Maybe after 100 years, people will realize his value and his influence on America’s history,” said Gary Goo, a 26-year-old developer and Obama supporter who attended the president’s farewell.

Obama was also met with applause and cheering as he expressed support for the LGBT community, Muslim Americans, blacks, immigrants, women and other minority groups in America in various points of his speech.

“When minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness,” Obama said. “When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”

Obama acknowledged highs and lows of his two terms in office, but focused mainly on four threats to democracy he observed. Economic and racial inequality, extreme partisanship, and taking the democratic system for granted all pose threats to the success of democracy in the U.S., Obama said.

Though President-elect Donald Trump’s name was only mentioned once throughout the speech—when Obama discussed the necessary “peaceful” transition of power—the president made many references to the differences between the two parties’ ideologies on race relations, climate change and other issues, concluding, “politics is a battle of ideas.”

Despite disagreements with Trump and the Republican Party, Obama also promoted tolerance and understanding for the future. 

“We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own,” Obama said.

He also stressed the importance of continuing conversations with people who have different ideologies and ideas, without ignoring the realities of the issues the country will face—such as climate change and terrorism.

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

Michael O’Malley, an 82-year-old Chicagoan who was able to attend because his granddaughter gave him a ticket, said he was interested in hearing Obama speak about the past eight years, but also on what the next eight years holds for the current president and the country.

“I won’t stop,” Obama said during his speech. “In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all of my remaining days.”

The highlight of the night was hearing Obama talk about his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, and his daughters, Sasha and Malia Obama, Goo said.

When thanking his family as well as Vice President Joe Biden, Obama began to tear up, as did many in the audience.

“For the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend,” Obama said about the first lady. “You took on a role you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style and good humor. You made the White House a place for everybody.”

Obama also addressed his daughters—Malia attended the speech while Sasha remained in Washington D.C.—praising the young women.

“Of all that I have done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad,” he said.

Over the past eight years and even during his final address, Obama has been a role model for Americans, Goo said.

“I respect him, not just because he is president, but also as a normal person,” Goo said. “I want to be a person like him.”

Obama thanked not only his family, vice president, cabinet, staff and supporters, but all Americans.

“Every day, I have learned from you,” Obama said to the people listening in Chicago and around the world. “You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.”