Barack Obama's Most Influential And Powerful Speeches
Regardless of your politics, it's hard to deny Barack Obama has a gift for oratory.
In spite of the challenges he's faced during his tenure, Obama consistently used his words to weave an unapologetically optimistic vision of America.
But he's also touched on themes and topics that are universal, which is a large part of the reason he's generated such a positive global image.
Indeed, over the course of Obama's political career, his speeches have inspired millions of people — both in the US and well beyond its borders.
In short, the man is good with words.
In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
On Tuesday, January 10, President Obama will deliver his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois.
There is perhaps no better moment than now to reminisce on some of Obama's more powerful speeches.
When people look back on his presidency, they will undoubtedly reflect on the many times he stepped forward, calmly stared into the distance and addressed the wider world.
As we await his final words for the country, here are nine Obama speeches that will go down in history.
2004 — DNC Keynote Speech: "The Audacity of Hope"
Barack Obama burst onto the national scene in 2004 as a young US Senate candidate from Illinois when he delivered the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts.
The speech captured a notion that Obama has reiterated throughout his tenure — diversity is America's greatest strength.
There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.
By telling the story of his unconventional upbringing, the president reminded this country of a timeless truth: You can be from anywhere and everywhere and still be American.
My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or 'blessed,' believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success... They're both passed away now. And yet I know that, on this night, they look down on me with great pride. And I stand here today grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
2008 — Speech on Racism: "A More Perfect Union"
After a video of Obama's former pastor shouting racially charged obscenities about America surfaced, Obama delivered a speech on racism in March 2008, during his first presidential campaign.
This union may never be perfect, but [...] it can always be perfected.
As a biracial man, Obama was in a unique position to give such a speech. He spoke to both aspects of his heritage, and the need for people to resist the urge to address the very real impact of racism in America, both in terms of its past and present:
Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
2008 — Election Victory Speech
This speech stands as not just a major moment in Obama's story, but the country's history.
In a nation still contending with a long history of racism, in which many of the founders were slave owners, a black man had been elected president.
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.
Obama's election victory instilled within many people, especially younger generations, a boundless sense of hope.
As Obama stepped forward to address an ecstatic crowd in Chicago, he said,
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
2009 — Inaugural Address
On a bitterly cold day in January 2009, Barack Obama officially became the first black president of the United States.
In his inaugural address, the president acknowledged the many struggles America was facing at that time but urged its citizens to meet them head on by embracing the fighting spirit that had carried it through dark periods in the past.
We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
The president ended his speech with a quote from Thomas Paine that George Washington ordered read to the colonies during the Revolutionary War when a British victory seemed inevitable,
Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].
America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
2009 — Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize early on in his presidency, a lot of people were confused.
Other than winning the election, he hadn't really accomplished much yet.
Not to mention, he'd come into office amid two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and as president would inevitably have to take many violent actions in the future.
Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.
President Obama understood this contradiction and acknowledged it in his acceptance speech, while also using it as an opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on profound questions surrounding war and peace. He said,
As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we're all basically seeking the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families. And yet somehow, given the dizzying pace of globalization, the cultural leveling of modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities — their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we're moving backwards... But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. [...] Let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.
2015 — Selma Speech
President Obama's speech for the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery reminded us that loving your country often requires being critical of it.
The speech was being given on the anniversary of one of the most important moments of the civil rights movement, so addressing the darker chapters of America's past was unavoidable.
We don't fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.
Obama used his words to remind us that while we still have a great deal of work to do in terms of improving race relations and the country more generally, the progress we've made as a nation gives us many reasons to be hopeful.
More than anything, the president reminded us that progress is often incremental, and requires constant cultivation:
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It's the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what's right and shake up the status quo. [...] If Selma taught us anything, it's that our work is never done — the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.
2015 — Charleston Shooting Eulogy
President Obama's eulogy for the victims of the devastating shooting perpetrated by a white supremacist at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, will definitely stand as one of his most emotional addresses.
The president gave far too many speeches on tragedies, particularly those involving gun violence, during his tenure.
He poured emotion and feeling into all of them.
His speech at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting was very moving.
And his remarks at the vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting brought the country to tears.
But, somehow, his speech about Charleston still stands out.
For too long, we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.
It not only touched on the ongoing issue of gun violence, but America's historic and present struggles with racism:
For too long, we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions. [...] Perhaps it causes us to examine what we're doing to cause some of our children to hate. [...] Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it. [...] By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what's necessary to make opportunity real for every American — by doing that, we express God's grace.
2016 — Gun control speech
In January 2016, President Obama gave an emotionally-charged speech on executive actions he was taking to thwart gun violence.
This is not necessarily a speech that will go down as one of Obama's best in history, but the emotion behind it will never be forgotten by those who watched it.
During his speech, the president began crying about the children who were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad.
The president reaffirmed the importance of Second Amendment rights but reminded people that guns too often rob others of their other fundamental rights,
Second Amendment rights are important, but there are other rights that we care about as well. And we have to be able to balance them. Because our right to worship freely and safely — that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City. And that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too. Our right to peaceful assembly — that right was robbed from moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette. Our unalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — those rights were stripped from college students in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high schoolers at Columbine, and from first-graders in Newtown. First-graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun.
2016 — DNC Speech
America isn't about 'yes, he will.' It's about 'yes, we can.'
When it comes to America, Obama is relentlessly hopeful,
A lot has happened over the years. And while this nation has been tested by war, and it's been tested by recession and all manner of challenges — I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your President, to tell you I am more optimistic about the future of America than ever before.
Beyond this, Obama used this speech to once again celebrate the diversity that has enriched America's history and character,
Democracy isn't a spectator sport. America isn't about "yes, he will." It's about "yes, we can." We don't fear the future; we shape it. We embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.
The president finished by thanking Americans for renewing his faith in this country over and over,
Time and again, you've picked me up. And I hope, sometimes, I picked you up, too. [...] It's been you who've fueled my dogged faith in our future, even when the odds were great; even when the road is long. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope. America, you've vindicated that hope these past eight years. [...] Thank you for this incredible journey.