CHICAGO — Popular but politically humbled, President Barack Obama said goodbye to the nation Tuesday night in a dramatic reinterpretation of a presidential farewell address.
In a concession that, for now, his brand of progressive politics is stalled Washington, he admitted “for every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”
“This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” Obama said from a packed hall of supporters in his adopted hometown.
“After eight years as your President, I still believe that,” he went on. “And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.”
President Barack Obama momentarily batted back tears as he thanked his wife, Michelle, during the emotional tail-end of his farewell address in Chicago Tuesday.
“Michelle Lavaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side — for the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife, the mother of my children, you have been my best friend,” Obama said. “You took on a job you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style and good humor.”
Obama at one point took out a white handkerchief to wipe his eyes. Malia, his eldest daughter, also was seen wiping away tears.
The President’s speech centered on the threats to democracy but also his fundamental belief in the system, asking his supporters to still trust that change and progress are possible.
He also gave a shout-out to his vice president, Joe Biden, calling him “a brother.”
“You made the White House a place that belonged to everybody,” he said about Michelle Obama. “You have made me proud, and you have made the country proud.”
Shortly after his speech concluded, Michelle Obama tweeted a picture of a much-younger looking Obama family saying, “So proud of @POTUS and all that we’ve accomplished together. An incredible journey filled with remarkable people. I love you Barack. -mo.”
As he spoke before a rowdy crowd of supporters, 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.
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 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.
He recognized his successor Donald Trump, saying he was committed to a peaceful transition of power.
But he warned that going forward Democrats shouldn’t fall in line with their commander-in-chief.
“Democracy does not require uniformity,” Obama said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
The speech centered on the values of the democratic system despite challenges he perceives from his successor, Donald Trump, though he was only named once.
Here’s a look at the night’s most memorable lines:
“Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear,” he said.
“You have made me proud, and you have made me proud, and you have made the country proud,” he said of his wife as he at one point wiped back tears.
On believing in America
“Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Yes, we can,” he said, repeating his catchphrase from his 2008 campaign as he concluded his address.
On the lack of common ground
“It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating,” he said. “Because as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”
On race in America
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America,” Obama said. “Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.”
On American exceptionalism
“Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.”
“For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back,” he said. “But 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.”
“Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now,” he said.
On political discourse
“We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but as malevolent,” he said. “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 when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
On “four more years” chants
“I can’t do that,” he said when the crowd of Obama fans begged him to run again, which is not allowed by the Constitution.
The moment, conceived months ago, is meant to recall the most iconic moments of Obama’s historic tenure, ones rooted in the “hope and change” message that carried the first African-American to the White House.
As he departs office leaving scores of progressive policies in place, there’s ample evidence of change. But for his backers, the “hope” aspect of that original mantra is diminished by the prospects of Donald Trump‘s presidency.
“For Michelle and me, Chicago is where it all started. It’s the city that showed us the power and fundamental goodness of the American people,” Obama wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday inviting supporters to view his prime-time address.
“It’s easy to lose sight of that in the blizzard of our minute-to-minute Washington news cycles. But America is a story told not minute to minute, but generation to generation,” he went on. “We’ve made America a better, stronger place for the generations that will follow. We’ve run our leg in a long relay of progress, knowing that our work will always be unfinished.”
Obama’s speech is the capstone of a months-long farewell tour, manifested in extended magazine interviews, lengthy television sit-downs, and the White House’s own efforts to document the President’s waning administration.
Through it all, Obama has sought to highlight the achievements of his presidency using statistics showing the country better off now than eight years ago. He’s offered a rational view of Trump’s election and rarely lets on to any apprehension about his future as an ex-president.
First lady Michelle Obama has offered a more candid view in a scaled-back version of her own farewell. She sat for an hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey, frankly admitting that Democrats were now “feeling what not having hope feels like.”
And she became emotional during her final set of formal remarks at the White House Friday, her voice quaking and eyes welling with tears as she told a crowd of educators: “I hope I made you proud.”
The first lady’s subdued but deeply felt departure stands in sharp contrast to the President’s own farewell speech Tuesday. Upwards of 20,000 people are expected to view the address at McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America where Obama declared victory over Mitt Romney in 2012.
Obama has been planning his speech for months, aides said, formulating the broad themes while on vacation over the holidays in Hawaii and developing drafts starting last week.
He told aides months ago that he preferred to deliver his farewell address in his hometown, a first for a departing President. George W. Bush, unpopular and facing a financial crisis, delivered his final prime-time address in the White House East Room to a crowd of 200 supporters and aides.
Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter all used the Oval Office — a setting Obama has long spurned for formal remarks. George H.W. Bush traveled outside of Washington to West Point for a departing address after failing to secure a second term, though he didn’t actually bill it as a farewell.
The tradition extends back to George Washington, who issued warnings against unchecked power and partisan entrenchment in a written address to the nation in 1796.
Eight years ago, Barack Obama inspired Americans to embrace political change with the mantra “yes we can.” He bade them farewell Tuesday after a historic, tumultuous presidency with the words “yes we did.”
Obama revived the spirit and idealism of his 2008 campaign in a nostalgic, sometimes emotional final address to the nation from his hometown of Chicago, 10 days before he cedes power to Donald Trump, his antithesis in personality and politics.
The President stood unbowed and unapologetic after eight tough years, an unrepentant champion of hope and change.
Just as on a frigid morning in Springfield, Illinois, in February 2007 when he announced his White House bid, Obama strode on a walkway to a stage set in a huge crowd to his campaign anthem, “City of Blinding Lights” by U2.
Despite years of partisan gridlock, tarnished hopes that the nation’s first African-American president could represent a post-racial age, and the uncertainty of leaving his legacy in the hands of Republicans bent on destroying it, Obama defiantly defended his belief in the capacity of politics to empower transformational social and economic change.
“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history…,” Obama said.
“If I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11… If I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”
“But that’s what we did,” Obama said. “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.”
A speech for history
In a speech that was as much for history as for the moment, Obama essentially argued that America is as great as it has ever been, a beacon of democracy, equality and hope. That was a not-too-subtle contrast to President-elect Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
In many ways, Obama’s speech was a repudiation of those who said he raised unreasonable expectations with his hope-fueled campaign in 2008 and failed to change the tone of politics as he had promised.
He argued passionately for progressive change, economic and gender equality, a strong social safety net, a health care system like the one set up under his Affordable Care Act, and a tax code that does not overtly benefit the rich.
While its purpose was to say goodbye, Obama’s speech also felt more like the kind of campaign address he might deliver today, were he running for the White House for the first time. He spoke with the passion of a candidate, not a bowed lame duck president shuffling off into retirement.
He spoke of threats to America’s political system, at a time of dislocation and turmoil across the world, beseeching his supporters not to cede the fight to improve and safeguard their democracy, sounding as though he was worried about what might happen once he has left the White House.
While touting his achievements, he painted a picture of a nation tested by racial, economic and social strains, and in comments that appeared to be a reflection on the fury and division opened by the election in which Trump beat Hillary Clinton last year.
“There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times,” Obama said. “A shrinking world, growing inequality; demographic change and the specter of terrorism — these forces haven’t just tested our security and prosperity, but our democracy as well.”
Departure from tradition
Obama’s address was a departure from the more traditional farewell speeches given by past presidents — it could hardly have been more different than the cozy, humble speech by President Ronald Reagan in 1989.
Indeed, the grandiosity and highly political tone of the event will likely irk Republicans who argue that Obama opened political divides rather than healing them as he promised in 2008.
The speech was also a reminder of the stylistic differences between the 44th President and the 45th President who will be sworn in next week — and the sharp divides in the nation which they represent.
Where Trump prefers social media bursts and stream of consciousness tirades, Obama’s speech was an illustration of what his supporters see as soaring eloquence, and critics brand as professorial lecturing.
The President only mentioned Trump in recalling his promise to the President-elect to preside over a smooth transfer of power. But much of his comments — and defense of his own record — could be taken as an implicit criticism of the man who will replace him in the Oval Office.
He decried the “selective sorting of the facts” that he said plagued modern politics, rejected discrimination against Muslim Americans, lambasted those who deny global warming is real and said “democracy can buckle when we give in to fear.”
“Without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible,” Obama said.
Obama became emotional when he paid tribute to his wife Michelle and his daughters Malia and Sasha
“You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor,” he told the First Lady.
Coming full circle, Obama took his leave by recalling his 2007 campaign launching address — effectively arguing that everything he had said that day about being a catalyst for Americans to realize their own political change had been validated over the course of his presidency.
“You did change the world,” he said.
“I am asking you to believe,” he continued. “Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”