Farewell, President Obama

Commander in chief returns to Chicago for his final speech where it all began

Free Press wire reports | 1/12/2017, 10:13 p.m.
President Obama bid farewell to the nation Tuesday in an emotional speech that sought to comfort a country on edge ...
President Obama waves to the crowd as he takes the stage in Chicago on Tuesday to deliver his farewell address.

Free Press wire reports


President Obama bid farewell to the nation Tuesday in an emotional speech that sought to comfort a country on edge over rapid economic changes, persistent security threats and the election of Republican Donald Trump.

With a final call of his campaign mantra, “Yes we can,” the president offered a speech in his hometown of Chicago that — forceful at times and tearful at others — was a public meditation on the many trials the country faces as President Obama takes his exit.

He urged Americans to stand up for U.S. values and reject discrimination. He gently prodded the public to embrace his vision of progress while repudiating some of the policies that President-elect Trump promoted during his campaign for the White House.

“So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are,” he told a crowd of 18,000 people in Chicago, where he celebrated his election in 2008 as the first African-American president of the United States.

“Yes, our progress has been uneven,” he said. “The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”

Yet President Obama argued his faith in America had only been strengthened by what he’s witnessed the past eight years, and he declared: “The future should be ours.”

Brushing away tears with a handkerchief, President Obama paid tribute to the sacrifices made by his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, and by his daughters, who were young girls when they entered the home on Pennsylvania Avenue. He praised his wife for taking on her role “with grace and grit and style and good humor” and for making the White House “a place that belongs to everybody.”

President Obama wipes away tears during an emotional moment in his address

Photos by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama wipes away tears during an emotional moment in his address

Soon, President Obama and his family will exit the national stage, to be replaced on Friday, Jan. 20, by President-elect Trump, a man President Obama had argued poses a dire threat to the nation’s future with proposals to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country, build a wall along the border with Mexico, upend a global deal to fight climate change and dismantle President Obama’s health care reform law.

In his televised speech of just under an hour, President Obama made clear his opposition to those positions has not changed, and he said his efforts to end the use of torture and close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were part of a broader move to uphold U.S. values.

“That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said to applause.

He said bold action is needed to fight global warming and said “science and reason” matter.

“If anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it,” he said, in another prodding challenge to his successor, who has urged Congress to repeal Obamacare right away.

First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia embrace as President Obama warmly acknowledges them during his speech.

First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia embrace as President Obama warmly acknowledges them during his speech.

He warned about the pernicious threat to U.S. democracy posed by purposely deceptive fake “news” and a growing tendency of Americans to listen only to information that confirms what they already believe.

Get out of your “bubbles,” said President Obama, who rose to political leadership with a message of unity, challenging divisions of red states and blue states. President Obama also revived a call to activism that marked his first presidential campaign, telling Americans to stay engaged in politics.

“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet,” President Obama said pointedly, “try to talk with one in real life.”

While he came to office amid high expectations that his election would heal historic racial divides, he acknowledged in his speech that it was an impossible goal.

“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America,” he said. “Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”

He urged racial minorities to seek justice not only for themselves, but also for “the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change.”

Even as he said farewell, the anxiety felt by many about the future was palpable, not only in the Chicago convention center where he stood in front of a giant presidential seal. The political world was reeling from new revelations about an unsubstantiated report that Russia had compromising personal and financial information about President-elect Trump.

When he noted he would soon be replaced by the Republican, the crowd began to boo.

“No, no, no, no, no,” President Obama said. One of the nation’s great strengths, he said, “is the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next.”

Earlier, as the crowd of thousands chanted, “Four more years,” he simply smiled and said, “I can’t do that.”

The former community organizer closed out his speech by reviving his campaign chant, “Yes we can.” To that, he added for the first time, “Yes we did.”

Steeped in nostalgia, President Obama’s return to Chicago was less a triumphant homecoming than a bittersweet reunion bringing together loyalists and staffers, many of whom have long since left President Obama’s service, moved on to new careers and started families. They came from across the country — some on Air Force One, others on their own — to be present for the last major moment of President Obama’s presidency.

Sitting in the front row with his wife and older daughter, Malia, were his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden.

Unexpectedly absent was President Obama’s younger daughter, Sasha. The White House said Sasha stayed in Washington due to a school exam Wednesday morning.

After returning to Washington, President Obama will have less than two weeks before he accompanies President-elect Trump in the presidential limousine to the Capitol for the new president’s swearing-in.

After nearly a decade in the spotlight, President Obama will become a private citizen, an elder statesman at 55. He plans to take some time off, write a book — and immerse himself in a Democratic redistricting campaign.