By Justin Sink
CHICAGO – President Obama drew an implicit contrast with his successor in his farewell address Tuesday night, acknowledging that despite his historic election eight years ago, his vision for the country will exit the White House with him.
“The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some,” Obama said in the opening portions of the address at McCormick Place.
Obama’s full speech from his adopted hometown of Chicago was expected to be a sermon on political engagement after a grueling election won by Republican Donald J. Trump, who made undoing Obama’s achievements the centerpiece of his campaign. The president made a final appeal for the American people to embrace inclusiveness and to serve his legacy before his successor is inaugurated Jan. 20.
As he spoke before a rowdy crowd of supporters, CNN reported that Obama was interrupted often with screams of “I love you, Obama.” When a protester holding a “Pardon all of us” sign, chants of “Four more years” drowned out the shouts, CNN reported.
Obama sought to corral his crowd, listing the accomplishments of the last eight years ranging from health care to marriage equality while insisting that his work isn’t finished. The transition to Trump’s presidency loomed large over the address, and one senior Obama administration official familiar with the speech-drafting process said that Obama recognized the conflicting emotions within the nation’s electorate. Obama and his aides are also aware that many supporters gathering in Chicago were dismayed that his election eight years ago served as the high-water mark for a Democratic Party that has been electorally ravaged at every level of government and now finds itself in the wilderness.
But Obama wanted the address to be inclusive, transcending politics, and organized around the belief that his administration – and the history of the country – demonstrates the power of engagement between citizens and the government, according to the official.
“Remember that America is a story told over a longer time horizon, in fits and starts, punctuated at times by hardship, but ultimately written by generations of citizens who’ve somehow worked together, without fanfare, to form a more perfect union,” Obama said in a Saturday radio address previewing his final speech.
The speech was to be one of the president’s last opportunities to make the case for policies, such as the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street regulation, that the incoming administration has vowed to repeal. But aides said it won’t be a self-congratulatory list of accomplishments. Instead, Obama appealed to citizens to embrace tolerance, drawing an unspoken contrast with the president-elect, who has called for walling off the U.S. border with Mexico and ending the admission of refugees from war-torn Muslim countries.
Obama was committed to delivering “a forward-looking speech” that will focus primarily on “what the president believes is necessary for confronting the challenges ahead,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday.
The address will promote values including fairness, justice, and nondiscrimination, Earnest added. Obama will stress that “diversity is a strength” of the nation.
Work on the address began during Obama’s holiday vacation in Hawaii, with the president’s chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, working poolside to finish a draft he presented to the president on the flight home to Washington. Obama provided feedback through the early days of January, producing three additional drafts, but has lamented not being able to devote more time to the task, according to a person familiar with the process.
Monday night was Obama’s first chance to extensively edit and rewrite, and work on the speech continued throughout the day Tuesday. Members of the president’s various policy teams hadn’t been given drafts to review even Monday.
Aides cautioned that the speech was not be a call-to-arms for the Democratic resistance to Trump. But the remarks will likely preview how the president, who remains popular despite his party’s devastating and sweeping losses in November’s elections, hopes to continue inspiring supporters once he’s exited office and Republicans have seized all levers of power in Washington.
Obama is ramping up planning for his post-presidency, with every indication that he’s betting better political organization can help reverse the losses Democrats experienced under his leadership.
The president has hired his White House political director, David Simas, as CEO of his foundation, a signal that he expects to remain connected to the Democratic policy and donor classes.
His foundation has said that a training center for grass-roots organizing will be part of his presidential library, and he also plans to partner with former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to promote an overhaul of congressional redistricting.
Some administration officials may also join the president’s Chicago-based political committee, Organizing for Action, which grew out of his successful presidential campaigns.