Obama: household time , not politics, is likely to be my life’s ‘most precious’ memories

Addressing a summit for young African leaders in Washington, the US president spoke reflectively about balancing family life with a political career

Birthdays are often cause for intimations of mortality. Barack Obama, who turns 55 on Thursday his last birthday in the White House is no different.

I am positive that if Im lucky enough to live to a ripe old age and Im on my deathbed and Im thinking back on my life, I wont be recollecting some speech I dedicated or some statute I signed, he mused on Wednesday. Ill be recollecting holding hands with one of my daughters and strolling them to a park. Thatll be the thing most precious to me.

The US president was addressing a summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in Washington. He was greeted by chants of Yes, we can! a once thrilling sobbing that already has a wistful ring and a lusty chorus of Happy Birthday to You.

One member of the audience asked him about the importance of family life to political leaders. Preserving balance, having a strong partnership with your wife or spouse, raising children who are kind and helpful and strong and generous and all the things that my wonderful daughters are, that really is its own reward, Obama said to applause.

He noted that some great leaders have not had happy personal lives, and some outstanding fathers and parents have been bad leaders. The two things dont always align, he acknowledged.

For me, the reason that its been useful to maintain that balance is I think its grounded me. Its let me, during the course of my presidency when things arent going so well, to remember that I have this beautiful family and this wonderful wife.

And when things are going very well, its good to go home and then my wife pesters me about how I left my shoes in the middle of the living room, or my daughters think what Im talking about over dinner is boring, and that brings me down to earth.

Attendees
Attendees cheer as Barack Obama arrives. Photo: Rex/ Shutterstock

Increasingly, as his presidency gale down, Obama is striking a reflective and wry tone. The media is now treating him kindly, he noted, as it concentrates on the battle to succeeded him. There have been days when I thought the press was very unfair and Id open up the newspapers and run: Agh, what? and Id start arguing, he told. But there have also been periods when the press have started investigating something and Ive thought, you know what, this is a problem.

He would rather have the press err on the side of liberty than be censored by a countrys chairwoman or “ministers “, Obama, the son of a Kenyan, added in a warning to many African nations.

Interacting with young leaders has been a cause close to Obamas heart. He discussed the merits of seeking a political career. If he had lost his US Senate race in 2004, he acknowledged, he was ready to quit politics and do something else. His advice to aspiring politicians: Worry less about what you want to be and more about what you wishes to do.

He added: Politics is a little bit like going into acting or being a musician … You can be really talented but perhaps the timing is off … Perhaps you didnt get the lucky break … When you think about me being president of the United States, it was quite unlikely.

His breakthrough moment in 2004 only arrived about because nominee John Kerry preferred him to speak at the Democratic convention, Obama remembered. I gave a pretty good speech, he told, and the next day he was an overnight media sensation and being “was talkin about a” as a future chairperson. But, he told a friend at the time, he hadnt magically become so much better than in his days as a nation senator. Fate had played a part.

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‘Yes we did’: Barack Obama lifts America one last time in emotional farewell

Outgoing president gives proud account of his eight years in office and pays moving tribute to Michelle, wife, mother of my children and best friend

Yes we can, he said one last time. Yes we did. And the crowd roared.

Barack Obama the son of a Kenyan goat herder and self-described skinny kid with a funny name who grew up to become Americas first black president had come to say goodbye.

But while for most of the past eight years it had seemed this night would be one of joy and nostalgia, now it came with a sober note, laden with omens and warnings about a democracy under siege.

Obama had hoped to be talking about passing on the baton to fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton. Instead Donald Trumps stunning victory implied an existential threat and called for him to paint on a bigger canvas. In a state of our democracy speech he deftly concentrated his fire not on the president-elect but on the malaise that produced him. In 4,300 words he only mentioned Trump by name once but delivered much by way of repudiation.

Obama dismissed talk of post-racial America, in vogue after his own ascent in 2008, as unrealistic. He defended the rights of immigrants and Muslim Americans. He lambasted those who refuse to accept the science of climate change. He warned of the threat posed by the rise of naked partisanship, with people retreating into their own self-confirming bubbles.

There was not, perhaps, the piercing emotion of Obamas greatest speeches. But when he came to thank his wife, Michelle, for standing by him through it all, an eulogy that prompted one of the biggest cheers of the night, he wept.

They were back in their home city, Chicago, albeit in the unromantic surroundings of a dark and cavernous convention hall with giant US flag, presidential seal and TV screens. The make-up of the audience male and female, young and old, diverse in race and religion was itself a statement about who he was and what he stood for. They cheered and roared and whistled, rising in a wall of human noise, holding his memory tight.

Every day I learned from you, Obama told the audience. You made me a better president and you made me a better man.

Michelle
Michelle and Malia Obama react to the outgoing presidents tribute. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

It had been 2,989 days since the Obamas were greeted by nearly a quarter of a million supporters gathered in Chicagos Grant Park on election night in 2008. Maybe you still cant believe we pulled this whole thing off, he said wistfully.

And before he hit his stride there was an eruption from the audience. Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! they chanted. The president raised his hand and replied: I cant do that! This is not a monarchy, after all.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy, Obama said. That elicited some boos, but he pressed on: The peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next. Now there was applause. I committed to president-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

Over the past eight years Obama has travelled the globe extolling the American experiment in democracy, admitting its flaws but insisting that it strives for a more perfect union. He little expected to be ending his second term having to defend the great project on his home turf.

Democracy depended on equality, he argued, and the economy was growing again. But this was not enough. Stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles a recipe for more cynicism and polarisation in our politics.

Then he named a second threat to democracy. After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.

Upholding laws against discrimination alone would not be enough, he said, adding that hearts must change. In a nod to the discontent in rust belt states that helped propel Trump to victory, he continued: For blacks and other minorities it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like hes got all the advantages, but whos seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change.

But he added: For white Americans it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didnt suddenly vanish in the 60s; that when minority groups voice discontent theyre not just engaging in reverse racism or practising political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest theyre not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our founders promised.

Obama went on to tackle a hot topic in the wake of last years bitterly divisive presidential election: deep polarisation, even around what facts people consume. For too many of us its become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or 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, 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 accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence thats out there.

Citing climate change as an example, he added: Without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, well keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.

Democracy was threatened when taken for granted, Obama said, noting the relatively low turnout in US elections. Our constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But its really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own.

Democracy needs you, he told an estimated audience of 18,000. Not just when theres an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If youre tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life.

If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organising. If youre disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes youll win. Sometimes youll lose More often than not your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed.

George Washingtons farewell address warned of the divisiveness of political parties. Dwight Eisenhowers warned of the rise of the military industrial complex. So Obama cannot assume his words will be heeded.

His professorial side had been at the fore all night. But when he came to thank his family there was a shift. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the south side [of Chicago], for the past 25 years, youve been not only my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend. You took on a role you didnt ask for and you made it your own with grace and grit and style, and good humour. 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. Youve made me proud. Youve made the country proud.

Teary Barack Obama thanks Michelle in farewell speech

Michelle sat in the front row. The crowd erupted around her and gave an extended ovation. Beside her the couples daughter Malia welled up with tears.

Obama also paid tribute to Malia and sister Sasha the latter absent due to a school exam in Washington the next day saying: Of all that Ive done in my life Im most proud to be your dad.

Michelle and Malia, along with the vice-president, Joe Biden, and his wife, Jill, joined the president on stage to more cheers and goodbye waves from the crowd.

Sheila Baldwin, a 64-year-old African American, who got her ticket on Saturday after queuing from 5am, said: My ancestors would appreciate and insist I see this historic event. It was thrilling for us to see my mother, who is 91, witness the first black president; now to see it come full circle is a wonderful moment.

Obama shook hands with supporters, including civil rights struggle veteran Jesse Jackson, and stepped out of the limelight. To the end he appeared composed and serene: a man at peace with himself.

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