President Barack Obama wrapped up his two terms on Tuesday the way he began them, here, in Chicago, with a big aspirational speech looking to the future, tempered by the reality that even with all of his hope and change, Donald Trump is his successor.
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours,” Obama said.
What a goodbye for Obama at McCormick Place, with only days left in the White House. Obama, coming full circle here, not far from the South Side neighborhoods where a young Obama worked as a community organizer in his adopted hometown.
In a blink, he jumped from the Illinois state Senate, to the U.S. Senate to the White House, all in the span of a few years.
Now it’s the end, at least the conclusion of Obama’s White House chapter. As said aptly on Twitter, #Obamafarewell.
Obama no doubt would have delivered a very different farewell address if Hillary Clinton had won. His speech was full of rebukes to Trump’s divisive campaign.
This did not seem like a speech from a man who was going to remain quiet very long.
With no baton to pass on — for now — Obama’s prayer in his speech was to keep moving ahead, as he invoked the famous three-word slogan from his 2008 race for the White House.
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written.
“Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”
But for the fact that Obama’s time in the White House will end at noon on Jan. 20, the celebratory scene in McCormick Place almost could have been election night in 2012, where he marked his re-election, except that everybody here knew this was the end of an era for the nation’s first black president.
“Four more years, four more years,” the crowd chanted when Obama started his farewell address, the first time a president ever ventured out of Washington to deliver his final say.
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Chicago Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Ariel Gray put the crowd count at about 18,000. First lady Michelle Obama, Malia, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill joined Obama on the stage at the end. His youngest daughter, Sasha, remained in Washington because she had a school exam on Wednesday, the White House said.
Obama has been on a long off-ramp for the past months, and his speech briefly dwelled on his achievements, some of which Trump has vowed to undo. Ending a recession. Rebooting the auto industry. More private sector jobs. Relations with Cuba. The Iran nuclear deal. Killing Osama bin Laden. Marriage equality. Health insurance for millions more.
“But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. 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,” Obama said.
Obama took aim at Trump.
“We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
And he called for the next generation to get engaged.
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.
“Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win.”
The “real progress” made on Obama’s watch was not enough, he said, especially when it came to race, a subject the president — the son of a Kenyan who was black and a mother from Kansas who was white — grappled with throughout his presidency.
Obama outlined the progressive agenda at risk in a Trump administration, almost as if he were on the campaign stump.
“We must forge a new social compact — to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible.
“We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”
Then he confronted race and his presidency, which he has struggled with through the years because the expectations were so high.
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago — you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.
“But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do. After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves,” Obama said to a big roar.
On Obama’s watch, Black Lives Matter came to be and Trump’s election was seen as a new chapter for white male Americans.
Obama, ever consistent, had a parting message for blacks and whites.
“For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.
“For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”
In his finale, Obama also took a parting shot at the corrosiveness of fake news that also became a factor in Trump’s win.
“And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.
“This trend represents a third threat to our democracy. “
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told me that in coming to Chicago, Obama “probably set a new precedent” for making a farewell address “a major media event and not just a speech from the White House.”
Filling McCormick Place was “an unbelievable amount of hoopla in Chicago, never seen before in presidential history.”
Obama used “this as one giant fireworks victory lap.”
This farewell address will become one more of Obama’s famous speeches.
As Brinkley said, Obama “looked back and looked forward, all at the same time.”