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Politics & Government

Obama, In Farewell Address, Urges Americans To Engage In Government


Barack Obama gave his final speech as the 44th president of the United States. The overriding theme of the farewell address last night in Chicago was American democracy - its strengths and the threats President Obama believes it faces. He quoted from the first president's farewell address that Americans must reject any effort to weaken what George Washington called the country's sacred ties.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We weaken those ties 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 coarse 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...


OBAMA: ...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.

MARTIN: And Obama warned that's not the only way Americans have been walling themselves off into ideological bubbles and segregated social media feeds. He says America needs to break down those walls if it's to live up to its potential.


OBAMA: If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the internet...


OBAMA: ...Try talking with one of them in real life.

MARTIN: Above all, the president urged Americans to engage in government, to be part of the change they want to see. Joining us now to talk about the speech is Jon Lovett. He spent three years as one of Obama's White House speechwriters.

Jon, thanks for being with us.

JON LOVETT: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What was your immediate reaction to Obama's farewell address as someone who knows him, who knows the kinds of speeches he's given over the years?

LOVETT: It's bittersweet. I think that it's inspiring to be reminded of why people believed in Barack Obama from the very beginning. I think it's both sad and frightening that we are in a place where the president leaving office believes it's necessary to defend the tenants of democracy, not just for people around the world, but for us as citizens. You know, presidents give farewell addresses and it's about cementing a legacy, it's about looking forward. But also, presidents - especially two-term presidents - have a unique vantage point on which to look at this country. It's a peculiar and strange job that affords presidents lessons that I think is worth imparting.

MARTIN: He, as you mentioned - it's - it is a unique job, he's done it for eight years. And inevitably people change, but especially when you sit in that post. Your outlook, I imagine, on the world starts to change. How different was this speech from one he would have given eight years ago?

LOVETT: I think that there's a remarkable consistency in who this person is. I think that this is - look, this president has been called and derided as all kinds of things, but this was a patriotic speech. You know, I found myself feeling hopeful. And I think for a lot of people who wanted a different outcome in this election and who were worried about the future of this country, it was a reminder that it's good to be hopeful. I think it was - I mean, it's hard right now to talk about this because this is not an ordinary farewell address.

Farewell addresses traditionally are not just about lessons, they're about warnings - President Washington warning about faction, President Eisenhower warning about the military industrial complex, President Jackson warning about too-powerful financial institutions. President Obama gave a warning about the defense of democracy itself, and that was a powerful and important message. And it's sad that we have to hear it, but I'm glad he delivered it.

MARTIN: He also used it as an opportunity to talk about what he considers to be some of his greatest achievements when he was in office - the economic recovery following the Great Recession, talked about Obamacare expanding health coverage for millions of Americans, the Iran nuclear deal. And he argued that these were collective achievements. Let's listen to a little bit.


OBAMA: That's what you did. You were the change. You answered people's hopes. And because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

MARTIN: Do you hear that as a sort of call to service?

LOVETT: Yes. This is a president leaving office having achieved a great deal. Those achievements are in jeopardy. And I think it's important that he's reminding people that, as citizens, we have agency. And people that voted for Donald Trump had agency in that decision. People that, right now, are afraid that there's nothing they can do have agency, and we need to fight.

And President Barack Obama, I believe, is a decent man. And what he's done tonight is to be a responsible, inspirational leader who doesn't resort to cynicism and who tries to remind people of the good work that's been done and that there isn't a reason to lose hope. And maybe that's too earnest, but that's where I'm at.

MARTIN: As the first black president, Barack Obama was careful about when and how he spoke about race, but he did. And he did it again last night. Let's listen to this.


OBAMA: After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.

MARTIN: So he's kind of acknowledging the high expectations that were put on him when he went into office.

Were the speeches where he talked about race relations in America - I mean, what was he trying to get out of those moments? What were his own expectations for the impact they would have?

LOVETT: I'd say - look, you know, you look at the speech he gave last night. And in the speech he gave, he laid out a pretty realistic version of what it means to see things from another person's perspective. But overall, I don't think the message he gave was that different than the message you can draw all the way back to the race speech he gave during the 2008 campaign.

But the one thing I'd want to say is there are a lot of people who I think, right now, are worried about what kind of country we are because of the president we just elected. But it's easy to think that what's good about us is less true than what's wrong. But I found myself reminded that, yes, you know, this country just elected someone I think is a deeply unfit and unqualified person to be president of the United States. But this is also the country that elected Barack Obama twice. And that is, in and of itself, a reason to be hopeful.

MARTIN: Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter to President Barack Obama. Thanks so much, Jon.

LOVETT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.