President Obama urged Americans in his farewell address Tuesday night to uphold the principles of democracy, saying the country must hold on its ideals despite the temptation to ignore them.
Addressing supporters in his hometown of Chicago in the final public appearance of his presidency, Obama called for “forging a new social compact” for the American community going forward.
“We’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need, to give workers the power to unionize for better wages, to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reform to the tax codes so that corporations and individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible,” Obama said.
Much of the farewell address seemed to strike a contrast with President-elect Donald Trump, who has taken a hard line on immigration and has been accused of authoritarian leanings.
“For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation,” Obama said. “It’s what led patriots to choose Republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom, it’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande.”
Alluding to his second inaugural speech, Obama invoked the Stonewall riots, saying the call to citizenship is “why GIs gave their lives on Omaha beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan, and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.”
When Obama said in 10 days the United States “will witness of hallmark of democracy” on Inauguration Day, the crowd initially jeered at the thought of Trump taking office. Quieting the boos with “no, no, no, no,” Obama said the change is “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next.”
At four separate moments in his speech, Obama made LGBT references — the first was to the Stonewall riots, the second was marriage equality to remind his audience about progress made over eights years, and the second two were to urge keeping the fight going forward.
Obama identified the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality as one of the litany of accomplishments achieved during his administration.
“If I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens, if I told you all that, you would have said our sights were set a little too high, but that’s what we did,” Obama said. “That’s what you did. You were the change.”
The outgoing president also referenced transgender people when he urged minority groups to keep in mind as they pursue civil rights the perspective of others.
“For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenge that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugees, or immigrants, or rural poor or transgender Americans, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he has advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change,” Obama said.
Finally, looking to the future, Obama urged the nation not to shy away from fighting discrimination against LGBT people as well as other groups, including Muslim Americans, whom he said are “just as patriotic as we are.”
“That’s why we cannot withdraw from big, global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights,” Obama said. “No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement Obama’s farewell address confirms he “understands that transgender people are a part of the American community.”
“As the president said, nobody should have to feel unwelcome in the United States just because of who they are,” Keisling said. “We are so thankful to President Obama and his administration, and we will go forward working for progress and fighting against any attempts to undo the progress that has been over the last eight years and against any attack on any group of people in this country.”