After eight years in office, President Barack Obama delivered his farewell address to the American people Jan. 10, his last major effort to secure his legacy before he is succeeded by President-elect Donald Trump later this month. Although Obama’s tenure has been one of the most politically divisive in recent years, the positive impact he has had on race and society in America cannot be ignored.
We have become so accustomed to the concept that Obama is the first black president that many have forgotten what that truly means. America can never forget the more than 400 years of slavery and legal segregation that existed on its soil, but the 2008 elections demonstrated how drastically society has changed.
At that moment, as a non-white president was elected into office for the first time in American history, a shared feeling appeared in the hearts of people all around the world despite race or religion: hope. For many of the 85 million Americans listed as a minority race, the 2008 election was not simply a political victory or defeat; it was proof that the color of our skin does not limit our potential.
In many ways, Trump’s victory was a backlash against that. As Trump rides the global wave of xenophobia and isolationist populism, much of the inclusiveness central to our identity as a nation of immigrants might soon be replaced by a sense of hostility towards those deemed “not American.”
Obama’s many controversial policies including the Affordable Care Act and the Iranian Nuclear Deal are, and will continue to be, despised by many. However, few Americans can deny that as a person, he has remained a steadfast example of many of the characteristics regarded highly by our culture: integrity, respect and diplomacy. For the past eight years, to those of all political leanings, the president has always been an individual to look up to. With Trump’s ascension to office, this will no longer be the case.
Yet Obama’s belief in the future of our country remains untouched.
As he neared the end of his farewell address, Obama added, “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 am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”
It is this, Obama’s perpetual optimism, that is his greatest gift to the American people – and just one of the many things we have to learn from him. When his legacy is considered years from now, regardless of whether or not he will be remembered as a great president, he will surely be remembered as a great man.