Barack Obama Farewell Address Transcript: Classic Speech Transcripts
On January 10, 2017 in Chicago, former president Barack Obama delivered a heartfelt farewell address before an estimated TV audience of 24 million people. See the full transcript of the speech below.
Speaker 1: (04:42)
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.
Barack Obama: (04:48)
Hello, Chicago. It’s good to be home. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Barack Obama: (05:17)
Thank you so much, thank you, thank you. Thank you. It’s good to be home. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks. All right, everybody sit down.
Barack Obama: (05:22)
We’re on live TV here, I’ve got to move. Come on.
Barack Obama: (07:07)
You can tell that I’m a lame duck, because nobody’s following instructions. Everybody have a seat.
Barack Obama: (07:21)
My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well-wishes we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight it’s my turn to say thanks. 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 and 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. Every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.
Barack Obama: (08:33)
I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose to my life. It was in neighborhoods 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.
Barack Obama: (09:10)
I can’t do that.
Barack Obama: (09:24)
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.
Barack Obama: (09:38)
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.
Barack Obama: (10:10)
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.
Barack Obama: (10:30)
What a radical idea.
Barack Obama: (10:34)
The great gift our Founders gave 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.
Barack Obama: (10:56)
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, 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.
Barack Obama: (11:58)
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.
Barack Obama: (12:19)
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.
Barack Obama: (13:08)
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 … 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, and take out the mastermind of 9/11 … 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 had told y’all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
Barack Obama: (14:11)
But that’s what we did. 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.
Barack Obama: (14:48)
In ten days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next. I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.
Barack Obama: (15:36)
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.
Barack Obama: (16:04)
But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of the our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.
Barack Obama: (16:36)
That’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy.
Barack Obama: (16:45)
Understand, 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’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.
Barack Obama: (17:30)
There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. 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 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.
Barack Obama: (18:12)
In other words, it will determine our future.
Barack Obama: (18:19)
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. 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. Healthcare 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 healthcare system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.
Barack Obama: (19:34)
Because that, after all, is why we serve, not to score points or to get credit, but to make people’s lives better. But for all the real progress 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.
Barack Obama: (20:12)
That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1% has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind. The laid-off factory worker, the waitress or healthcare worker who struggle 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.
Barack Obama: (20:55)
There are no quick fixes to 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.
Barack Obama: (21:15)
So 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 reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible. 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.
Barack Obama: (22:21)
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. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. 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. You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.
Barack Obama: (23:10)
But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do. If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working 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. 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. 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.
Barack Obama: (24:34)
So 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. That is what our Constitution and our highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change over night. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should 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, 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.”
Barack Obama: (25:39)
For blacks and other minorities, that 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.
Barack Obama: (26:10)
We have to pay attention and listen.
Barack Obama: (26:23)
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; 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.
Barack Obama: (26:49)
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 were 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.
Barack Obama: (27:44)
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. And that’s not easy to do.
Barack Obama: (28:30)
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.
Barack Obama: (29:41)
This trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize differing 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, then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.
Barack Obama: (30:31)
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? 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 mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.
Barack Obama: (31:20)
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. 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.
Barack Obama: (32:02)
Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to 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.
Barack Obama: (32:37)
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 that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.
Barack Obama: (32:57)
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, speech, assembly, and an independent press.
Barack Obama: (33:47)
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 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. They represent 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.
Barack Obama: (34:51)
Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform, because of the intelligence officers, law enforcement, and diplomats who support our troops, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years. 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. 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. 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 [inaudible 00:36:08] of gratitude.
Barack Obama: (36:30)
But protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives 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. 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. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans, who are just as patriotic as we are.
Barack Obama: (37:51)
That’s why we cannot withdraw from the global fights to expand democracy, and human rights, 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.
Barack Obama: (38:55)
So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL 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 and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.
Barack Obama: (39:33)
Which brings me to my final point. Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should make it easier, not harder, to vote. 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. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our congressional districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.
Barack Obama: (40:56)
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.
Barack Obama: (41:21)
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 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.
Barack Obama: (42:16)
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.
Barack Obama: (43:07)
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.
Barack Obama: (44:03)
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 the democracy, citizen. Citizen.
Barack Obama: (44:37)
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 in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. 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.
Barack Obama: (46:43)
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.
Barack Obama: (47:48)
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 possibly have imagined. I hope your faith has, too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004, in 2008, in 2012. Maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off.
Barack Obama: (48:34)
Let me tell you, you’re not the only ones. Michelle … Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the south side, for the past 25 years, you have been not only my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend. 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. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You have made me proud and you have made the country proud.
Barack Obama: (50:48)
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, kind and thoughtful and full of passion. 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.
Barack Obama: (51:28)
To Joe Biden, 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. Not just because you have been a great vice president, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother. We love you and Jill like family, and your friendship has been one of the great joys of our lives.
Barack Obama: (52:37)
To my remarkable staff. For eight years, and for some of you, a whole lot more, I have drawn from your energy. 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, and start incredible new journeys of your own. Even when times got tough and frustrating, you never let Washington get the better of you. You’ve guarded against cynicism. The only thing that makes me prouder than all the good we’ve done is the thought of all the amazing things you are going to achieve from here.
Barack Obama: (53:37)
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 hope for, and I will forever be grateful. Because you did change the world. You did.
Barack Obama: (54:17)
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 you can make a difference; 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. 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.
Barack Obama: (55:17)
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 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.
Barack Obama: (56:01)
I am 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.
Barack Obama: (56:38)
Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.
Barack Obama: (56:39)
Thank you. God bless you. May God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you.