Sweet: Obama finale to be big, will call on ‘fight for democracy’

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Follow @lynnsweetWASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will use his farewell address at McCormick Place on Tuesday to call for the mobilization of a new generation of leaders and “to motivate people to get involved and fight for their democracy,” said senior advisor Valerie Jarrett.

“You can’t take it for granted,” said Jarrett, previewing Obama’s final speech Monday, briefing a small group of reporters seated around the long table that dominates the White House Roosevelt Room.

“You have to work hard at it and it’s not easy. And you have to be vigilant,” said Jarrett, Obama’s longest serving senior advisor.

Obama on Monday was still crafting his speech, his staffers said – an intended opus that has been in gestation for weeks.

Speechwriter Cody Keenan – who attended elementary schools in Evanston and Wilmette – told me on Friday this finale will be one of the big ones.

“It’s the only farewell address he’ll give and each president gets to give one, so I guess it’s sort of like a reverse inaugural,” said Keenan, who earned his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University.

One of the speech goals – though no one who briefed me said it this bluntly – is to remind Democrats devastated by the looming presidency of Donald Trump – that history has a very long arc.

I get that gist. Yesterday’s defeats can, with time, turn into victories tomorrow, even as Trump is poised to savage much of Obama’s legacy. Obama’s speech is intended to be a rallying cry for despondent Democrats.

Obama wants to use the thread of his own career – starting out as an organizer on Chicago’s South Side – to motivate people to fight for change, even when confronted with defeats.

“That will be the emotional thrust of the speech,” Keenan said.

On Monday, Obama, in an email fundraising appeal for the Democratic National Committee made that very point.

“There are cynics who have doubted us at every step these past eight years — who said that our desire for change was unrealistic and that our agenda was little more than a pipe dream. But thanks to millions of Democrats like you, we’ve been able to prove them wrong time and again.

“We have some legislative battles to fight in the months ahead and, sooner than you might realize, it’ll be time to prepare for some tough elections next year. And the cynics are at it again, saying that our values have been defeated and that Democrats aren’t fired up,” Obama said.


Follow @lynnsweetObama’s Organizing for Action – the group based on Chicago’s West Side that was spawned from his two national presidential campaigns – was also sending out emails with a similar message.

“Progress only stops when people stop pushing for it,” OFA said.

Mrs. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden will all be at McCormick Place – but they were not scheduled to speak.

While Obama celebrated his 2012 second term victory at McCormick Place with a rally, on Tuesday, the plan is to make the event more serious by having everyone seated, said White House Communications Director Jen Psaki. Psaki said that the number of seats was in the neighborhood of 14,000.

“It was important to the president personally that this not be a rally…It’s a serious speech and a serious message,” Psaki said.

Last summer, at a planning meeting in the Roosevelt Room – adorned with portraits of Teddy and FDR and a bust of Eleanor – Psaki said she asked Obama if he wanted to do a farewell address.

Obama wanted to know if he had to do it in the White House. The answer was no.

“So Chicago was a natural place for him,” Psaki said.

As for Obama’s speech, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at the Monday briefing there is still a lot of work that needs to be done on the speech.

“I can tell you in general that the president’s committed to delivering a forward looking speech that will examine briefly the significant progress that our country has made in the last eight years. But it will take a closer look, and spend more time talking about what the president believes is necessary for us to confront the challenges that lie ahead,” he said.

Obama’s day trip to Chicago will be the last time he is on Air Force One, Earnest said. Obama is expected to touch down at O’Hare in the late afternoon and leave shortly after he wraps up his speech, to start at 8 p.m. Chicago time. The speech is also serving as a big national reunion of all the Obama alumni from political operatives and staffers and others who have been in the Obama orbit.

On Jan. 20 – inauguration day – Obama and first lady will depart Washington for a vacation after Donald Trump is sworn-in as the 45th president of the United States. When they return, they will live in their rented home here. As is the custom, the outgoing president gets one more ride on the presidential plane – but without a president on board, the bird is not called Air Force One.

After being on the national stage for a decade, Obama, Jarrett said, “is looking forward to some new people stepping up.”

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