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. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles. While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind – the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and health care 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 – a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.
There are no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree that our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.
And so we must 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 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.
There’s a second threat to our democracy – one 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. For 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 ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.
But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do. After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce. And 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.
Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination – in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system. That’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters 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.”
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 he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.
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; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles. America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.
So regardless of the station we occupy; we have to try harder; 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 like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
None of this is easy. For too many of us, it’s 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 that’s out there.
This trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll 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 is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.
Isn’t that part of what makes politics so 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 mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.
Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, doubled our renewable energy, and 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: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.
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 innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.
It’s 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.
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, and build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but on principles – the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.
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, 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. 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 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, and the intelligence officers, law enforcement, and diplomats who support them, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years; and although Boston and Orlando remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We’ve taken out tens of thousands of terrorists – including Osama 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, it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your Commander-in-Chief.
But protecting our way of life requires more than 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. That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform 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. That’s why we cannot withdraw from 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. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism 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. 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.
Which brings me to my final point – our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. When voting rates 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 districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.
And all of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings.
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 – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. 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;” that we should preserve it 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.
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 rancor 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.