President Barack Obama’s farewell speech to the nation tonight in Chicago was a reminder of the outgoing president’s oratory power, and for many, it marks the end of an American era. Delivered in the city of Chicago where Obama first celebrated winning the presidency in 2008, the farewell speech serves as a final bookend to a journey, as a country uncertain of its future looks back over the past eight years and forward to the next several.
The Barack Obama farewell speech was held in Chicago in a large auditorium as reported by Vox, an oddity as previous presidential farewell addresses have typically been delivered with little fanfare in Washington, D.C., often from the White House itself. More similar to one of Obama’s campaign rallies, the crowd in his native Chicago greeted the president exuberantly, as he took to the podium and uttered the words, “Hello, Chicago. It’s good to be home.” Mr. Obama had to take several minutes before beginning his farewell speech, attempting to silence the audience.
“We’re on live TV here, I got to move… You can tell I’m a lame duck because nobody’s following instructions.”
Presidential farewell addresses often share a few central themes. Most include giving thanks to supporters, making an accounting of successes and victories the leader has accumulated during their tenure in the White House, and a bit of wisdom for the future and the leader’s vision for it. President Obama’s farewell speech was no exception, in that he did hit all these points, but the Obama farewell speech was also unique simply for the historic nature of his presidency and for the uncertainty with which many look towards the future.
Peppered throughout the Obama farewell speech were allusions to his accomplishments as president, but he seldom lingered on any one of these points. He pointed out the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as Obamacare, a contentious program that he often cites as one of his greatest achievements but is being targeted for repeal by the Republican Party. He pointed out economic gains that have been made since he took office in 2009, when the United States faced a daunting and dire economic crisis that has become known as the Great Recession. He pointed out successes in the global war against terrorism, claiming that he did all he could to make it more “legal” and transparent, as well as the successful mission to bring Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to justice. However, he assured that crowd that it was not only his leadership but the American people themselves that are responsible for what gains have been made over the past eight years.
“America is a better, stronger place than when we started,” Obama said. “That’s what you did.”
The theme of the American people being the arbiters of American democracy was one Barack Obama constantly returned to during his farewell speech, invoking the opening line of the Preamble to the Constitution as written by Thomas Jefferson.
“We The People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union. What a radical idea… it brought pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans.”
Obama followed this thought, however, with a statement indicating that truly, it is not the Constitution itself that confers power to the people of the United States, but that it is “just a piece of parchment. It has no power of its own. We the people give it power.”
President Obama focused his warnings around the theme of “dangers to our democracy.” Central to this theme was the danger that comes not from internal threats, but rather a failure within the country to find common ground and to participate in the democratic process. This theme was brought home when he mentioned President-elect Donald Trump, who won the presidential election in November with a majority of the electoral vote while losing the popular vote and will take office at noon on January 20. Mr. Trump’s name was greeted by boos and jeers from the crowd, which Mr. Obama quickly silenced, stressing the importance of a peaceful transfer of power and that he has promised to make the transition as smooth as possible for Mr. Trump, as George Bush did for Obama eight years ago. President Obama instead advised those who were unhappy with recent election results to get involved in the process.
“If you’re disappointed with your elected officials, get a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”
Barack Obama also stressed other issues surrounding political participation, making strong statements about the necessity of getting money and corruption out of politics, increasing voter turnouts and election accessibility, and fighting gerrymandering and partisan bickering that endangers political institutions. Obama, in this section of the farewell speech, sounded much like the Obama of the 2008 campaign or even Senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic Party primaries.
Elsewhere in Obama’s farewell speech, he addressed the issues of race and division in the country, saying that when he was elected, expectations were perhaps too high surrounding those issues, and that there was more to be done.
“There was talk (when I was first elected) of a post-racial America, which however well intentioned, was never realistic.”
He went on to connect the racial and immigration issues facing the United States to participation in the democratic process, saying that “politics is a battle of ideas,” and that young people have every right to protest perceived injustice.
“They are not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”
Mr. Obama also said that he rejected discrimination against Muslim Americans, saying that they are “just as patriotic as we are,” and warned against income inequality, saying that he feared that the working class of all races would be “left with scraps while the wealthy withdraw further and further into their enclaves.”
The Making And Ending Of Barack Obama’s Final Speech
According to PBS News, Obama was set on not merely reviewing the past eight years in his farewell speech, but instead wanted a speech that would be “bigger than politics.” Charged with this task, Obama’s chief speechwriter Cody Keenan began a first draft of the Obama farewell speech while the president was on vacation in Hawaii a month ago. Several drafts later, Obama and Keenan sealed themselves in the White House for an entire night to polish a final speech draft.
For several weeks, the Obama speechwriting team pored over Obama’s previous speeches, including the 2004 keynote address he delivered at the Democratic National Convention that year and his campaign speeches. A number of former aides and advisors were brought in to consult on the speech, but the end result comes off very much as being from the heart.
Obama’s farewell speech included many dire warnings about lack of involvement in politics, racial and income inequality, and the threat of a world that is growing smaller and smaller. However, it also contained heartfelt moments, especially as he turned to his wife and children. As the camera turned to Michelle Obama, Mr. Obama teared up as he addressed her, saying that she was “not only my wife and mother of my children, but my best friend.”
“You made the White House a place that was for everyone,” he said.
He thanked his friend and vice president, Joe Biden, and his family for their service and friendship, and said that he would serve the United States as a citizen “all my remaining days.”
As the Obama farewell address drew to a close, Obama asked all citizens of the United States to serve as well, telling the new generation that he has been inspired by their patriotism and willingness to participate.
“You will soon outnumber all of us, and as a result, I believe the future is in good hands.”
Obama’s farewell speech ended as the president left the stage in Chicago, and on January 20 he will leave the White House, another transfer of American political power.
[Featured Image by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images]