Barack Obama on Tuesday night urged Americans to be “anxious, jealous guardians” of their democracy and to rediscover their common purpose as citizens, as he warned of the threats presented by corrosive political dialogue, economic inequality and fractious race relations.
Ten days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, Mr Obama declared in a farewell message that he leaves office more optimistic than when he was elected and renewed the mantra that accompanied his first run for the presidency. “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can,” he concluded.
But his speech to a boisterous crowd in Chicago was shot through with anxiety about the increasingly vicious political scene that Mr Obama leaves behind him, the divisions that have opened up in society, and the uncertain prospects of a Trump presidency.
The president dwelt in particular on the bitter and aggressive partisan rhetoric that risks pulling Americans apart, at one stage pointedly saying “if you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life”.
Mr Obama said: “We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancour that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow 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 blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
As Mr Obama listed the achievements of his presidency, many of his messages could be read as warnings to Mr Trump, his successor. These included a strong rejection of any discrimination against Muslim Americans, an attack on climate change denial, and celebration of immigrants and refugees who had come across oceans and the Rio Grande.