On Tuesday evening, as I watched President Obama make the final rounds with Michelle and Malia, waving at the crowd, I was flooded with dread. I was reminded of those rare occasions when I was very young, when Mom dropped Deanna and I off at a family member’s house so she could run a quick personal errand, and we cried and cried, pleading, “Please don’t goooooooo!” For the past eight years, I’ve found comfort in Obama’s patience, confidence, and compassion, in the fact that he, of all people, proved again and again to be honest, intelligent, steady, forceful, and kind in the face of both tragedy and achievement. I dreaded the void Obama was leaving behind, and how it shortly was going to be filled with someone already proven to be base, short-sighted, vindictive, and vain.
Indeed, when I reread the transcript of Obama’s speech the following morning, I realized how cautionary his message was. He enumerated a number of specific threats to our democracy that we need to confront with urgency and sincerity, lest we severely weaken ourselves from within.
He spoke about the threat of partisanship:
“Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”
The threat of economic inequality:
“Stark inequality is…corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1% has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind. The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills, convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”
The threat of sectarianism:
“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.”
The threat of the compromising of our American values:
“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.”
The threat of taking our democracy for granted:
“Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms, whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing, but the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
And the resulting threat of our present political situation:
“America, we weaken those ties [that make us when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So course with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others. 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.”
Thankfully, Obama didn’t just express caution, nor did he leave an empty void. He enumerated as many, if not more, practical solutions to these threats: from reforming the tax code to coming face-to-face with our trolls. He called it “the call to citizenship.” And he reminded us that, historically, we Americans have always risen to the occasion, that just in the past eight years we’ve made great strides.
And Obama did what all good father figures do: he patted us on the back and handed over the reins. “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you,” he said. “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.” As soon as he said this, I realized just how much I—and so many others like me—needed to hear it. We needed to know that we weren’t entirely orphaned, that there were still good people with good ideas in our midst.
So despite my dread, I ultimately came away feeling like I always do after I hear Obama speak: warm, teary-eyed, clear-headed, reassured. Because, as Chris murmured, goosebumps prickling both of our arms, “Obama is just so much more mature than EVERYBODY.”
Published by the West Seattle Herald 01/16/2016.