As we look back on the past eight years, President Obama asked each member of his Cabinet to write an Exit Memo on the progress we’ve made, their vision for the country’s future, and the work that remains in order to achieve that vision. At the same time, President Obama has composed a letter to the American people, which will accompany the Cabinet Exit Memos. You can view each memo at go.wh.gov/CabinetInReview.
Letter from President Obama
To my fellow Americans,
Eight years ago, America faced a moment of peril unlike any we’d seen in decades.
A spiraling financial crisis threatened to plunge an economy in recession into a deep depression. The very heartbeat of American manufacturing – the American auto industry – was on the brink of collapse. In some communities, nearly one in five Americans were out of work. Nearly 180,000 American troops were serving in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the mastermind of the worst terror attack on American soil remained at large. And on challenges from health care to climate change, we’d been kicking the can down the road for way too long.
But in the depths of that winter, on January 20, 2009, I stood before you and swore a sacred oath. I told you that day that the challenges we faced would not be met easily or in a short span of time – but they would be met. And after eight busy years, we’ve met them – because of you.
Eight years later, an economy that was shrinking at more than eight percent is now growing at more than three percent. Businesses that were bleeding jobs unleashed the longest streak of job creation on record. The auto industry has roared its way back, saving one million jobs across the country and fueling a manufacturing sector that, after a decade of decline, has added new jobs for the first time since the 1990s. And wages have grown faster over the past few years than at any time in the past forty.
Today, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, another 20 million American adults know the financial security and peace of mind that comes with health insurance. Another three million children have gained health insurance. For the first time ever, more than ninety percent of Americans are insured – the highest rate ever. We’ve seen the slowest growth in the price of health care in fifty years, along with improvements in patient safety that have prevented an estimated 87,000 deaths. Every American with insurance is covered by the strongest set of consumer protections in history – a true Patients’ Bill of Rights – and free from the fear that illness or accident will derail your dreams, because America is now a place where discrimination against preexisting conditions is a relic of the past. And the new health insurance marketplace means that if you lose your job, change your job, or start that new business, you’ll finally be able to purchase quality, affordable care and the security and peace of mind that comes with it – and that’s one reason why entrepreneurship is growing for the second straight year.
Our dependence on foreign oil has been cut by more than half, and our production of renewable energy has more than doubled. In many places across the country, clean energy from the wind is now cheaper than dirtier sources of energy, and solar now employs more Americans than coal mining in jobs that pay better than average and can’t be outsourced. We also enacted the most sweeping reforms since the Great Depression to protect consumers and prevent a crisis on Wall Street from punishing Main Street ever again. These actions didn’t stifle growth, as critics predicted. Instead, the stock market has nearly tripled. Since I signed Obamacare into law, America’s businesses have added more than 15 million new jobs. And the economy is undoubtedly more durable than it was in the days when we relied on oil from unstable nations and banks took risky bets with your money.
The high school graduation rate is now 83 percent – the highest on record – and we’ve helped more young people graduate from college than ever before. At the same time, we’ve worked to offer more options for Americans who decide not to pursue college, from expanding apprenticeships, to launching high-tech manufacturing institutes, to revamping the job training system and creating programs like TechHire to help people train for higher-paying jobs in months, not years. We’ve connected more schools across the country to broadband internet, and supported more teachers to bring coding, hands-on making, and computational thinking into our classrooms to prepare all our children for a 21st century economy.
Add it all up, and last year, the poverty rate fell at the fastest rate in almost fifty years while the median household income grew at the fastest rate on record. And we’ve done it all while cutting our deficits by nearly two-thirds even as we protected investments that grow the middle class.
Meanwhile, over the past eight years, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland. Plots have been disrupted. Terrorists like Osama bin Laden have been taken off the battlefield. We’ve drawn down from nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan to just 15,000. With a coalition of more than 70 nations and a relentless campaign of more than 16,000 airstrikes so far, we are breaking the back of ISIL and taking away its safe havens, and we’ve accomplished this at a cost of $10 billion over two years – the same amount that we spent in one month at the height of the Iraq War.
At the same time, America has led the world to meet a set of global challenges. Through diplomacy, we shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program, opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba, and brought nearly 200 nations together around a climate agreement that could save this planet for our kids. With new models for development, American assistance is helping people around the world feed themselves, care for their sick, and power communities across Africa. And almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago. All of this progress is due to the service of millions of Americans in intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, diplomacy, and the brave men and women of our Armed Forces – the most diverse institution in America.
We’ve also worked to make the changing face of America more fair and more just – including by making strides towards criminal justice reform, making progress towards equal pay, repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and advancing the cause of civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. I appointed two extraordinary women to the Supreme Court, marking the first time in history that three women sit on the bench, including the first Latina. And today in America, marriage equality is finally a reality across all fifty states.
This is where America stands after eight years of progress. By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started – a situation I’m proud to leave for my successor. And it’s thanks to you – to the hard work you’ve put in; the sacrifices you’ve made for your families and communities; the way you’ve looked out for one another.
Still, through every victory and every setback, I’ve insisted that change is never easy, and never quick; that we wouldn’t meet all of our challenges in one term, or one presidency, or even in one lifetime. And for all that we’ve achieved, there’s still so much I wish we’d been able to do, from enacting gun safety measures to protect more of our kids and our cops from mass shootings like Newtown, to passing commonsense immigration reform that encourages the best and brightest from around the world to study, stay, and create jobs in America.
And for all the incredible progress our economy has made in just eight years, we still have more work to do for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or a dignified retirement. We have to acknowledge the inequality that has come from an increasingly globalized economy while committing ourselves to making it work better for everyone, not just those at the top, and give everyone who works hard a fair shot at success.
And here’s the thing – over the past eight years, we’ve shown that we can. Last year, income gains were actually larger for households at the bottom and the middle than for those at the top. We’ve also made the tax code fairer. The tax changes enacted over the past eight years have ensured that the top one percent of Americans pay more of their fair share, increasing the share of income received by all other families by more than the tax changes in any previous administration since at least 1960. Simply put, we’ve actually begun the long task of reversing inequality. But as the global economy changes, we’ll have to do more to accelerate these trends, from strengthening unions that speak for workers, to preventing colleges from pricing out hardworking students, to making sure that minimum wage workers get a raise and women finally get paid the same as men for doing the same job. What won’t help is taking health care away from 30 million Americans, most of them white and working class; denying overtime pay to workers, most of whom have more than earned it; or privatizing Medicare and Social Security and letting Wall Street regulate itself again – none of which middle-class Americans voted for.
We will have to move forward as we always have – together. As a people who believe that out of many, we are one; that we are bound not by any one race or religion, but rather an adherence to a common creed; that all of us are created equal in the eyes of God. And I’m confident we will. Because the change we’ve brought about these past eight years was never about me. It was about you. It is you, the American people, who have made the progress of the last eight years possible. It is you who will make our future progress possible. That, after all, is the story of America – a story of progress. However halting, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey – the story of America is a story of progress.
Recently, I asked each member of my talented and dedicated Cabinet to prepare a detailed report on the progress we’ve made across the board these past eight years, and the work that remains to make this country we love even stronger. Today, I’m sharing them with you. And I hope you’ll share them with others, and do your part to build on the progress we’ve made across the board.
It has been the privilege of my life to serve as your President. And as I prepare to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen, I’m proud to say that we have laid a new foundation for America. A new future is ours to write. And I’m as confident as ever that it will be led by the United States of America – and that our best days are still ahead.
On January 10, P resident Barack Obama returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago to deliver his farewell address to the nation in a way and a venue that had never been done before. In many ways, the speech neatly bookended the beginning of his career in national politics, starting with the 2004 breakthrough speech to the Democratic National Convention, continuing through the 2008 campaign. The themes, the earnest desire to do all he could to bring the country together, to make progress on behalf of all Americans, were all there. The speech was at once extraordinarily realistic and pragmatic yet idealistic, devoid of the cynicism that he would have been entitled to after all the obstacles, the vicious attacks, the nonstop efforts to delegitimize his presidency and demean him. He rose above it all, clinging to the values and principles which he holds most dear, exemplifying the very model of a national leader.
Without dwelling on it, he addressed the despair and despondency of millions and millions of Americans that he will be succeeded by someone who is diametrically opposite and opposed. The fear is that his legacy – record growth in jobs creation, wage increases, historic health care, historic international agreements on climate change, historic progress on civil rights – will all be erased. But he exhorted those who believe in progress to soldier on, to participate, to be engaged. Instead of complaining, run for office. Characteristically, he gave only brief mention of his achievements during his 8 years in office – not the least saving the nation from falling into a Great Depression, extracting us from two foreign wars, addressing numerous climate and environmental catastrophes and emergencies ranging from swine flu to Ebola, to terrorism. With great humility of a truly great and exceptional man, he thanked his Vice President Joe Biden, his wife,First Lady Michelle Obama and his children, his white House staff, those who worked and volunteered for his elections, and said he was about to resume the most cherished position of all: citizen.
And like Washington’s farewell speech, exhorting Americans to be vigilant against foreign interference, and Eisenhower’s farewell speech, warning about the military-industrial complex, Obama offered his own warning: to be vigilant in protecting democracy from enemies, foreign and domestic who would undermine the very values and principles that are foundational, and that vigilance is the responsibility of all citizens.
“The future should be ours,” Obama exhorted. “But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now…
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge. 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…
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen….
“I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.”
Here is a highlighted transcript of the speech, which took just under an hour to deliver – Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! (Applause.) It’s good to be home! (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you. (Applause.) All right, everybody sit down. (Applause.) We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. (Applause.) You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat. (Applause.)
My fellow Americans — (applause) — Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks. (Applause.) Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts -– those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man. (Applause.)
So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.
AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!
THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.
AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!
THE PRESIDENT: This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.
After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea –- our bold experiment in self-government. It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
What a radical idea. A great gift that our Founders gave to us: The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.
For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. 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. (Applause.) It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan. And why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs, as well. (Applause.)
So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some. (Applause.)
If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — (applause) — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11 — (applause) — 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 –- (applause) — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)
In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy.
AUDIENCE: Nooo —
THE PRESIDENT: No, no, no, no, no — the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected President to the next. (Applause.) I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. (Applause.) Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.
We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. (Applause.) Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.
That’s what I want to focus on tonight: The state of our democracy. Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. 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. (Applause.)
There have been moments throughout our history that threatens that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism -– these forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy, as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland. In other words, it will determine our future.
To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again. (Applause.) The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. (Applause.) Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said and I mean it — if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it. (Applause.)
Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit, but to make people’s lives better. (Applause.)
But for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class. (Applause.) That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal.While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many 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 interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.
But there are no quick fixesto this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.
And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need — (applause) — 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 reforms to the tax code so 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. (Applause.)
We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.
There’s a second threat to our democracy — and this one is as old as our nation itself. 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. Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say. (Applause.) You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.
But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do. (Applause.) If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. (Applause.) If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce. (Applause.) And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.
So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system. (Applause.) That is what our Constitution and our highest ideals require. (Applause.)
But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — (applause) — who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen. (Applause.)
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s — (applause) — that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised. (Applause.)
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles — who it was said we’re going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened. (Applause.)
So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own. (Applause.)
And that’s not easy to do. 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. 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. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there. (Applause.)
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. But politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — (applause) — then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. (Applause.)
And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations? (Applause.) How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating. Because, as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you. (Applause.)
Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil; we’ve doubled our renewable energy; we’ve led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet. (Applause.) But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.
Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country — the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders. (Applause.)
It is that spirit, born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse — the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.
It’s that spirit — a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might — that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression; that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles — the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press. (Applause.)
That order is now being challenged — first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets and open democracies and and civil society itself as a threat to their power. The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. It represents the fear of change; 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 the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.
Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform, because of our intelligence officers, and law enforcement, and diplomats who support our troops — (applause) — no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years. (Applause.) And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists — including bin Laden. (Applause.) The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders, and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed, and no one who threatens America will ever be safe. (Applause.)
And to all who serve or have served, it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your Commander-in-Chief. And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude. (Applause.)
But protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, 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. (Applause.)
And that’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. (Applause.) That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are. (Applause.)
That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights — to expand democracy, and human rights, and women’s rights, and LGBT rights. No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For 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.
So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. (Applause.) ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. (Applause.) Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for — (applause) — and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.
Which brings me to my final point: Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. (Applause.) All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. (Applause.) When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote. (Applause.) When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. (Applause.) When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our congressional districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes. (Applause.)
But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. (Applause.) We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge. (Applause.) 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.
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.” And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one. (Applause.)
America, 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; 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. (Applause.)
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. (Applause.) Citizen.
So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. (Applause.) If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. (Applause.) If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. (Applause.) Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed. (Applause.)
Mine sure has been. Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen wounded warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again. I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees, or work for peace, and, above all, to look out for each other. (Applause.)
So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change — that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined. And I hope your faith has, too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004, in 2008, 2012 — (applause) — maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off. Let me tell you, you’re not the only ones. (Laughter.)
Michelle — (applause) — Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side — (applause) — for the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend. (Applause.) You took on a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and good humor. (Applause.) You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. (Applause.) And the new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. (Applause.) So you have made me proud. And you have made the country proud. (Applause.)
Malia and Sasha, under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women. You are smart and you are beautiful, but more importantly, you are kind and you are thoughtful and you are full of passion. (Applause.) You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily. Of all that I’ve done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad. (Applause.)
To Joe Biden — (applause) — the scrappy kid from Scranton who became Delaware’s favorite son — you were the first decision I made as a nominee, and it was the best. (Applause.) Not just because you have been a great Vice President, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother. And we love you and Jill like family, and your friendship has been one of the great joys of our lives. (Applause.)
To my remarkable staff: For eight years — and for some of you, a whole lot more — I have drawn from your energy, and every day I tried to reflect back what you displayed — heart, and character, and idealism. I’ve watched you grow up, get married, have kids, start incredible new journeys of your own. Even when times got tough and frustrating, you never let Washington get the better of you. You guarded against cynicism. And the only thing that makes me prouder than all the good that we’ve done is the thought of all the amazing things that you’re going to achieve from here. (Applause.)
And to all of you out there — every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town, every kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change — you are the best supporters and organizers anybody could ever hope for, and I will be forever grateful. (Applause.) Because you did change the world. (Applause.) You did.
And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference — (applause) — to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.
Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. (Applause.) You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands. (Applause.)
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. (Applause.) I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can. (Applause.)
Yes, we did. Yes, we can. (Applause.)
Thank you. God bless you. May God continue to bless the United States of America. (Applause.)