8 years later, Obama still offers hope

President Obama says goodbye
President Obama says goodbye

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Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He also is the author of several books, most recently "Stokely: A Life." The views expressed here are his.

(CNN)On Tuesday night, in front of a roaring crowd of enthusiastic supporters in his adopted hometown of Chicago, President Barack Obama delivered a stirring political farewell that simultaneously burnished his legacy, envisioned a more hopeful political future and engaged in the kind of soaring political rhetoric that helped make him a political supernova 12 years ago.

Democracy proved to be the evening's defining theme: how Americans fight and debate over it, at times mistrust and misunderstand it -- and too often take it for granted.
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    Speaking to the over 65 million anxious American voters who did not support the President-elect, Obama pushed for common ground in a national consensus informed by "a common baseline of facts" so that people can disagree without impugning one another's character, patriotism, or citizenship.
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    Obama tears up talking about Michelle

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    Obama tears up talking about Michelle 02:00
    After the most divisive presidential campaign in recent American history, Obama offered a rhetorical blueprint for forging a consensus out of the ashes of the nation's growing racial and economic divide. Dismissing talk of a "post-racial America" as unrealistic, Obama repudiated the false choice of framing economic inequality as "a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities." He noted that such a framework conveniently allowed the rich to "withdraw further into their private enclaves."
    The future of the American labor force, Obama argued, lies in the brown children of immigrants who deserved a quality education.
    "Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination -- in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system" because that's what the Constitution "and our highest ideals require," Obama reminded everyone.
    The President evoked the literary character of Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of Harper Lee's classic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird" to claim that empathy, or the ability walk in another's shoes, as key to blacks, whites, immigrants, the poor, rural and urban residents having a more comprehensive understanding of each other.
    Obama's words thoughtfully conveyed the fact that politics is often personal, perhaps more so than most would acknowledge and that racial oppression remains deeply rooted in the inability of many to view black Americans and other people of color as fully human.
    The President stopped short however, of discussing the institutional basis of racial inequality. Instead he implored African Americans to connect their struggles for justice with the plight of the white working class, refugees, immigrants and others.
    "For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s" Obama said in one of his most candid statements of the night.
    Nor did they end with the election of the nation's first black President.
    Watch President Obama's full farewell address
    Watch President Obama's full farewell address

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      Watch President Obama's full farewell address

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    Watch President Obama's full farewell address 50:07
    The President's discussion of racial injustice and economic anxiety pivoted to a seminar on increasingly sharp political divides -- augmented by isolated bubbles of like-minded friends, neighbors, and social media networks, that have threatened to undermine the very fabric of US democracy by letting everyone choose facts, science, news and reality.
    American democracy proved resilient enough to survive for 240 years because of the nation's great capacity for change, creating a land where the demonized immigrants of the 19th century turned into the political leaders and entrepreneurs of the 20th and where formerly enslaved African Americans transformed the very aesthetics of our democracy through creatively defiant resistance that helped to reshape the nation's vast political, cultural, and economic contours.
    Obama echoed FDR's admonishment against fear, noting that external threats of terrorism and religious extremism could not undermine American democracy as much as fear of change, political transformation, and progress could. "That's why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans," said the President, in a line that drew a standing ovation from the large crowd.
    Obama ended his speech by challenging Americans to shoulder the awesome responsibilities of citizenship, since "our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted." T
    This final point could have been aimed at the over 80 million citizens eligible to participate in this past election who did not. Americans could not afford either the cynicism that gripped much of the nation before his presidency or the sense of complacency that seeped in after his election.
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    Citizenship required finding inspiration in the efforts of ordinary Americans to change the world, struggles that produced movements for civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ rights, the environment, labor unions and so much more, including his own election.
    President Obama concluded his speech by, once again, asking the nation "to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change -- but in yours."
    It was a bravura performance, one helluva speech, one that even moved the President close to tears when he lauded the efforts of first lady Michelle Obama to open the White House to everyone and in the process make "the country proud."
    In the end -- as he led the crowd into one final chant of the "Yes We Can" slogan that catapulted him into the presidency and a world into a short-lived state of euphoria that we can someday share with our children and grandchildren,
    Obama briefly recaptured some of the magic that made so many believe that America was, as he remarked on election night eight years ago, "A place where all things are possible."