President Obama had barely begun his remarks before shouts of “I love you!” came from the audience, tributes upon his final speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner.
He returned the words, but did not linger. He quickly moved to the business at hand, hammering the urgency for Black voters to support Hillary Clinton at the polls Nov. 8, delivering arguably his most powerful address to the “conscious of the Congress.”
With thunder in his voice, the President said to repeated applause, “There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter! It all matters! And after we have achieved historic turnout in 2008 and 2012, especially in the African American community, I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election! You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote! And I’m going to be working as hard as I can these next seven weeks to make sure folks do!”
As billionaire businessman Donald Trump attempts to discourage Black votes from Clinton and supporters of former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders express hopelessness, some vowing not to vote, President Obama reminded what’s at stake as voters choose between Clinton and Trump.
“Hope is on the ballot! And fear is on the ballot, too,” he said, repeating, “Hope is on the ballot, and fear is on the ballot, too!”
Earlier, the president had begun the speech joking that he had an “extra spring in my step tonight” because he was “so relieved that the whole birther thing is over.”
As a political maneuver, Trump had held a press conference finally acknowledging that Obama was born in the U.S. after he, for eight years, spread lies and doubt, claiming that he was born in Kenya. CBC members had responded with an impromptu press conference reminding voters of what they described as Trump’s bigotry and racism as he used the ‘birther’ stance to undermine the legitimacy of America’s first Black president.
Looking around the audience of thousands, Obama seized the opportunity to thank those who had elected him twice, despite staunch racism against him.
“We do want to take this opportunity just to say thank you, say thank you for your support over the years, to say thank you for your friendship, to say thank you for your prayers,” he said to applause. “As I just look across this auditorium, there are so many people here who lifted us up, who steadied us when things got tough.”
Noting that he was glad that he was not just a symbol, but substance, he listed a number of successes of his administration: Together, we fought our way back from the worst recession in 80 years, turned an economy that was in free fall—helped our businesses create more than 15 million new jobs.
We declared that health care is not a privilege for a few, but a right for everybody, secured coverage for another 20 million Americans, including three million African Americans.
Our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, including for African American students.
More African Americans are graduating from college than ever before.
Begun to work on reforming our criminal justice system by reducing the federal prison population, ending the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, banning the box for federal employers, reinvigorating the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, pushing to make sure police and communities are working together to make sure that our streets are safe and that our law is applied equally.
And just this week, we learned that last year, across every race and age group in America, incomes rose and poverty fell.
Folks’ typical household incomes rose by about $2,800, which is the fastest growth rate on record—lifted 3.5 million people out of poverty, including one million children, the largest one-year drop in almost 50 years.
The audience applauded wildly as he ticked off the successes, which he said have not been quick nor easy. He added that much of it is unfinished.
Earlier, Clinton had spoken to the same audience warning the audience against the devices of “prejudice ad paranoia.”
“We need ideas, not insults, real plans to help struggling Americans in communities that have been left out and left behind, not prejudice and paranoia,” she said. “We can’t let Barack Obama’s legacy fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t understand that, whose dangerous and divisive vision for our country will drag us backwards”
Pushing to continue his legacy, Obama said voter turnout would be key: “If we are going to advance the cause of justice and equality and of prosperity and freedom, then we also have to acknowledge that even if we eliminated every restriction on voting, we would still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. That’s not good. That is on us,” he said. “And I am reminded of all those folks who had to count bubbles in a bar of soap, beaten trying to register voters in Mississippi, risked everything so that they could pull that lever. So if I hear anybody saying their vote does not matter, that it doesn’t matter who we elect. Read up on your history. It matters. We’ve got to get people to vote.”