WASHINGTON – Terrorist and authoritarian forces are testing the American democratic experiment, forcing its people to make choices of government based less on hope and more on fear, President Barack Obama warned in his farewell address to the nation.
Speaking before a laudatory crowd in his hometown of Chicago, where he launched his presidential bid in 2008, Obama took cues from his predecessors dating back to George Washington and offered the people words of caution as he prepares to depart.
“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” Obama said, speaking with 10 days to go in office. “Just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”
The United States is no “fragile thing,” the president insisted. But he noted that its achievements – both in promoting democracy and human rights around the world and in ensuring civil rights for all at home – are “not assured” as history marches forward.
“Let’s be vigilant, but not afraid,” Obama continued. “[Islamic State] will try to kill innocent people, but they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world – unless we give up what we stand for.”
The president outlined specific core American principles he believes are under threat, as well as what forces are challenging those principles: The rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly and an independent press, he said, are under assault from “a shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change and the specter of terrorism.”
Those tectonic forces have been compounded by political actors seeking to take advantage of social instability for personal gain: Hyper partisans at home, who have divided the people to such an extent that they have stifled basic fact-based debates; violent fanatics who “claim to speak for Islam”; and “autocrats in foreign capitals,” Obama said, “who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.”
The peril these threats pose to American democracy, he argued, “is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile.”
“It represents the fear of change,” he said – “the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.”
It was a daunting vision of an uncertain future from a president who, just two months ago, felt comfortable in the assurance that he would be succeeded by a steady hand and liberal warrior committed to the maintenance of his legacy.
Much of the speech was a repackaging of warnings Obama offered in the waning days of the presidential campaign: that democracy itself was on the ballot, and that Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House would represent a threat to the republic.
Obama’s final address was delivered with a backdrop of scandal, as CNN and The New York Times
began reporting earlier in the evening that American intelligence agencies are investigating members of Trump’s inner circle over alleged cooperation with Russian government officials during the presidential election campaign.
They further reported that Russian operatives had been collecting financial and personal information on the president-elect for more than five years – a compilation sufficient to blackmail him in future dealings, according to the alleged findings, which were presented to Trump and Obama in classified intelligence briefings last week.
Thanking his wife, Michelle, and daughter Malia, who were in tears in the crowd, Obama shed one himself and then turned to his supporters for one final farewell.
“My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop – in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain,” he said. “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”