Barack Obama to Americans: Only You Can Fix Our Democracy

If you didn’t get to watch President Obama’s speech at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on Friday, I’m going to post the video of the whole thing here because it’s probably helpful to watch in its entirety rather than just the snippets you’ll hear from journalists and pundits. If you prefer, you can read the transcript.

Obama hit on some his most familiar themes. One of the few exceptions was when he zeroed in on why our democracy is imperiled right now.

I am here to tell you that even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy, even if you believe in more libertarian economic theories, even if you are an evangelical and our position on certain social issues is a bridge too far, even if you think my assessment of immigration is mistaken and the Democrats aren’t serious enough about immigration enforcement, I’m here to tell you that you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.

It should not be Democratic or Republican. It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents. Or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up. I’m not making that up. That’s not hypothetical.

It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like….It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans.

We’re supposed to stand up to bullies. Not follow them. We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?

Over and over again, he said that what is happening in our country is not normal. It’s extraordinary and we’re living in dangerous times.

The answer Obama gave to the threats we face is one we’ve heard from him for years, but it has never been more important to articulate than right now.

The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many. That’s what this moment’s about. That has to be the answer.

You cannot sit back and wait for a savior. You can’t opt out because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate. This is not a rock concert. This is not Coachella. We don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hard-working people who are accountable and who have America’s best interests at heart. And they’ll step up and they’ll join our government, and they will make things better if they have support. One election will not fix everything that needs to be fixed. But it will be a start. And you have to start it. What’s going to fix our democracy is you.

…You’re the antidote. Your participation and your spirit and your determination, not just in this election, but in every subsequent election and in the days between elections. Because in the end, the threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of Republicans in Congress or the Koch brothers and their lobbyists or too much compromise from Democrats or Russian hacking. The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism.

Sometimes I think that the reason Obama got elected was because he was seen as a savior, no matter how much he tried to dispel that notion. That is precisely why those who viewed him that way were eventually disappointed—no one can live up to that. The truth is that Barack and Michelle Obama were inspirational figures who accomplished a lot. But ultimately, the only way our democracy will survive is if more people take their own role as citizens seriously.

As Obama said when he ran for president and then again today, one election isn’t going to fix everything. It is simply the beginning. The upcoming midterms could be the most important of our lifetimes. But even if Democrats post big gains, we’ll be right back in a similar crisis if we don’t solve this longer-term problem.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .