President Barack Obama marked the end of his presidency Tuesday with the same message of hope that launched him into the White House, challenging Americans during a prime-time farewell address to renew their commitment to democratic values and persist in their optimism for change.
From his hometown of Chicago, the city where he said he found purpose in public life, Obama reflected on his transition from the nation’s most powerful office to one he has said is just as vital: citizen.
Though Americans have largely grown more cynical about politics during his time in office, Obama said, he nonetheless continued to insist that change results when “ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.”
“After eight years as your president, I still believe that,” he said. “And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.”
Obama’s decision to deliver his final major national address from his adopted hometown instead of the White House was one of several flourishes on a tradition of goodbyes that have produced some of the most memorable speeches in presidential history, including Washington’s Farewell Address and Eisenhower’s dark warning of the military-industrial complex.
Tuesday’s address was orchestrated as a celebration. Obama spoke in a large convention hall a few blocks from Grant Park, where he spoke to supporters on the night of his historic election in 2008. Chicago-area native Eddie Vedder warmed up the crowd by leading the Chicago Children’s Choir in “People Have the Power.” Obama supporters and former aides fanned out across the hall, and as Obama made his way to the arena, organizers started up the campaign refrain, “Fired up! Ready to go!”
The speech also reflected the unique situation Obama will confront as he leaves office. At just 55, he is preparing for an active post-presidency in which he will champion many of the same core issues he worked on in the White House, including minority rights and opportunities for young people. And, with an approval rating hovering just below 60 percent in many public surveys, he remains one of the nation’s most popular political figures.
Obama’s remarks touched only marginally on his record. He touted the end of the Great Recession and other economic gains, foreign policy achievements such as restoring diplomatic ties to Cuba and a breakthrough with Iran to stall its nuclear program, as well as marriage equality in the U.S. and the expansion of access to health care for 20 million Americans who had been uninsured.
But he said those achievements were not his alone.
“You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started,” he said.
Instead, his focus was his optimism about civic engagement going forward after a bitter campaign to replace him and lingering concern about how President-elect Donald Trump will handle foreign relations, national security, the economy and other big-ticket issues.
He warned of further threats to American unity. Indeed, the audience booed when he spoke of the peaceful transition of power set to take place next week from him to Trump. He called for a new social compact to creating opportunity for all, or else “the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”
And the nation’s first black president reflected on racial tensions “as old as our nation itself,” calling for greater understanding and acceptance of the increasingly diverse nation.
“Laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change,” he said.
Senior advisers say Obama knows that many progressives, religious and ethnic minorities, and immigrants are feeling apprehensive with the approach of the handover to Trump, who was elected after promising to crack down on immigration, scrutinize Muslims in the U.S. and challenge what he termed political correctness.
The president, his White House team and its sprawling alumni network were wistful as they close the Obama era. In recent days on social media, former aides have posted old photos from their underdog campaign in 2008 and early moments in the White House.
The remarks were expected to be Obama’s final address in office, though he may still conduct one more news conference before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has used his bully pulpit to inspire, condemn and cajole. He was always heavily involved in writing his biggest speeches, and his team of young speechwriters spent as much time with him as did more senior staff.
Chicago writers have always been at the heart of his craft. His earliest message guru was Chicago political mastermind David Axelrod, who helped him come up with the “yes, we can” concept that propelled him into office. In his second term, his head speechwriter has been Chicago native Cody Keenan, who worked with Obama on the farewell address throughout the holidays.
Obama also worked on it for hours over the weekend. He was still at work on it Monday as his team prepared for the trip to Chicago.
After he leaves office, he plans to take time to “quiet” himself and contemplate the last eight years, said Valerie Jarrett, the president’s longtime adviser and family friend. He wants to give Trump space to operate and won’t comment on relatively small developments, friends say.
He wants to give Trump “room to do his homework,” Jarrett said.
At the same time, Obama is aware that he can command attention when the moment is right. And if some development troubles him, he may speak out, he has said. For now, though, he hopes to leave a message of hope as he walks off the world stage.
It’s time for the “passing of the baton,” said Jen Psaki, the White House communications director.