"This is your victory," President Barack Obama said in his 2008 victory speech given at a time when the country was in the worst economic recession in decades, with unemployment soaring, the financial markets near total collapse, and the country immersed with two costly foreign wars.
He inherited a dispirited and scared nation consumed with uncertainty and fear. But his message to the quarter million people gathered in Chicago's Grant Park, and tens of millions Americans watching on television, was one of hope. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep," he said. "We may not get there in one year or even one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."
Many of those who voted for President Obama, the nation's first African American president, were seeking change. The government in Washington was failing, the political system was broken, and big money had too much influence. Manufacturing jobs were fleeing the country, millions of Americans had no health care, and the middle class was shrinking. America's place in the world was diminishing, terrorists cast a shadow over daily life, and U.S. soldiers were dying in two distant wars that seemed interminable.
President Obama's message of hope, his intelligence, his thoughtfulness, his incredibly positive demeanor, his decency, his integrity, his fine character, his grace under pressure, his equanimity and good temperament are traits that he lived by every day.
Many challenges faced this president. At the moment he was sworn in for his first term, the Republican leadership agreed to block every initiative, law, or action the president proposed. They proclaimed they wanted to make him a one-term president. Members of Congress, right wing radio talk show hosts and a New York real estate mogul constantly questioned President Obama's religion, citizenship and character. The attempts to delegitimize the president were disgusting and demeaning, and they added fuel to a very combustible situation created by those motivated by their own self-interests.
No president has been perfect. Every president makes mistakes, some more than others. History will ultimately be the judge of Obama's presidency. But, despite the challenges, he leaves office with many accomplishments. He was a truly consequential president.
President Obama saved the country from the Great Recession. He saved the auto industry. Unemployment fell from nearly 10 percent to 4.7 percent during his presidency, and the stock market has nearly tripled (almost all of it before his successor was elected). He extended health insurance to 20 million Americans, dramatically slowed the growth of health care costs, and made it possible for those with pre-existing health conditions to get insurance. President Obama supported marriage equality, repealed the military's "don't ask-don't tell" policy, signed legislation to combat pay discrimination against women, and signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Protection Act, and he signed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act. The president improved school nutrition programs, boosted fuel efficiency in cars, invested more in Veteran's Affairs, and reduced the homeless rate among veterans by 50 percent. He appointed the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
President Obama's administration helped negotiate the historic Paris Climate Treaty. The president helped negotiate the Iran Nuclear Deal, which includes Russia and our allies. He ended the war in Iraq, reduced American military presence in Afghanistan, and ordered the capture and killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden. He reversed Bush-era torture policies, began normalizing relations with Cuba, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. However, he has been criticized for his policies toward Syria, Russia and the Middle East, three intensely complex and complicated issues with no easy solutions.
President Obama held his final news conference in the White House pressroom Wednesday, thanking reporters and sending a message to the incoming president about the importance of having the press corps in that location. "Having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest, it makes us work harder," he said. The president was asked about the election's impact on his daughters. "What we've also tried to teach them is resilience," he said, "and we've tried to teach them hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world."
The president said he plans to take time off with his family, but he will speak about issues he deeply cares about. "I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad." He continued, "If we work hard and if we are true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That's what this presidency has tried to be about." He concluded, "At my core, I think we're going to be OK. We just have to fight for it, we have to work at it and not take it for granted."
Thank you President Obama, this was your victory.