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Obama’s farewell address: inspiring words, familiar themes, and a ‘primer on democracy’

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 25, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.Ê

President Barack Obama delivered his farewell address Tuesday night, which served as a powerful goodbye and a call to action, urging Americans to bring about positive change and stand up to threats that challenge democracy.

“Democracy does not require uniformity,” Obama said. “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 are all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”

Obama’s address “was a primer on democracy,” according to William Crotty, professor emeritus of political science.

Crotty and Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science, both found Obama struck similar themes in his farewell address as he has in past major speeches: the importance of Americans working together, understanding one another, avoiding divisiveness, and springing to action to improve society and protect democracy.

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 are all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.
— President Barack Obama

Obama pointed to his administration’s achievements in job growth, rising incomes, and lower poverty rates. He noted the passage of landmark healthcare legislation, normalizing relations with Cuba, and leading a global climate agreement. But the president focused more so on the impact Americans collectively have had on moving the country forward. “Because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started,” Obama said.

Beauchamp said that while the speech’s themes were familiar, many of the details Obama touched on were distinctive to the current times. He noted Obama’s discussion of inequality as being particularly poignant, and pointed to the president’s warning against people living in their own bubbles of knowledge and the fundamental disagreements taking place over what counts as truth.

“It’s one thing to have different values, but another to have different truths all together,” Beauchamp said. “It’s a concession that the problems are deeper than he thought. That’s more sobering than the usual Obama speech.”

Obama hardly mentioned President-elect Donald Trump, but rather noted, “In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy…the peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected president to the next.” Beauchamp noted that Obama’s speech was “oblique about how circumstances have changed.” Though Obama’s supporters seeking to be inspired and uplifted, as they have before by the president’s speeches, got just that with this farewell address, it “tinged with bittersweet flavor,” he said.

Beauchamp said that, given Obama has spoken extensively about uniting the country and bridging partisan divides, he’s interested to see how the president will address this issue as a citizen once his term concludes.

Crotty, for his part, noted that Obama’s address appeared to signal the type of agenda he’ll be pushing for the Democratic Party, and perhaps a platform of his own, once he leaves office. “He’s already made it very clear that he will be an active former president,” Crotty said.