Not long ago, President Obama had expected to use his farewell address to the nation to celebrate his administration’s achievements before handing them off to a Democratic successor.
Instead, in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory, a president whose political rise was propelled by his ability to inspire hope arrived in Chicago on Tuesday night facing a new reality.
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Tempering the disappointment of his supporters and soothing their anxiety has become, in his waning days in office, Obama’s last, unexpected campaign.
“For every two steps forward,” Obama told the crowd at the McCormick Place arena, “it often feels we take one step back.”
Obama took the stage amid an air of nostalgia, joined by his wife and daughter, the vice president, a gaggle of former aides and 18,000 supporters who braved frigid temperatures this week to score a ticket. Familiar campaign anthems from U2 and Bruce Springsteen played at the arena where Obama had celebrated his 2012 reelection victory.
Most of his predecessors had delivered their final addresses to the nation from the more formal environs of the White House, but Obama eschewed that tradition, flying home on his final trip on Air Force One before leaving office next week.
The choice was made to symbolize a return to the roots of his political career, and Obama has always felt more comfortable and energized at campaign-style rallies before big, adoring crowds.
“Hello, Chicago, it’s good to be home!” he began, before being cut off by cheers from the crowd. Basking in extended applause, Obama feigned impatience: “We’re on live TV here …”
But the warm embrace from his adopted hometown may have served another purpose, too, in helping to insulate Obama and his faithful from the stark reality that his goodbye speech was not the crowning valedictory they had so recently anticipated.
Over the course of 4,500 words, the president delivered a determined pep talk and reality check, warning his audience not to lose faith in democracy or to give up participating in the American experiment.
“Show up. Dive in. Stay at it,” he urged. “Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. … And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.”
To some in the arena, Obama’s advice might have rung hollow. The president himself had made the case, in his closing campaign argument for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, that he was optimistic about her chances because he had never lost a bet on the wisdom of the American public.
Since her defeat, Obama has shifted his rhetoric away from the “fierce urgency of now” that had animated his first campaign in 2008 to a longer frame of reference that has become his mantra as he faces the prospects that Trump could undo much of his legacy.
“America is a story told not minute to minute, but generation to generation,” Obama said in a blog post ahead of his farewell address. “We’ve run our leg in a long relay of progress, knowing that our work will always be unfinished.”
In a series of exit interviews with journalists and private meetings with disappointed staff since Election Day, Obama has professed that progress, rather than moving in a straight line, zigs and zags but never stops moving forward.
As Air Force One departed Washington, cable networks blared live coverage of the Senate confirmation hearing of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s nominee for attorney general who was Obama’s chief antagonist in the fight over immigration reform.
“Yes, our progress has been uneven,” Obama said in Chicago. “The work of democracy has always been hard. … But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion.”
Presidents have often used their farewell remarks to speak of the challenges ahead and reaffirm American values and ideals, but Obama’s appearance in Chicago took on an added undercurrent of tension over his past criticisms of Trump as temperamentally unfit for office.
Not long before the president took the stage in Chicago, news broke in Washington that U.S. intelligence agencies had briefed Obama – and later Trump – on unsubstantiated reports that Russian operatives purportedly had sought to obtain damaging revelations about Trump’s personal life and finances.
The president did not criticize Trump directly, and he quieted the crowd when it began to boo after he alluded to the pending transfer of power in 10 days to the incoming administration.
Instead, Obama referred obliquely to his successor, reiterating a warning he had first made last spring that the erosion of what he called a “common baseline of facts” in the nation’s political debate has accentuated “naked partisanship.”
“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions,” Obama said Tuesday.
“Isn’t that part of what so often makes politics so dispiriting?” he asked. “It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating.”
In the end, however, Obama professed that he was “even more optimistic about this country than when we started,” and he grew emotional, wiping a tear from his eye with a handkerchief, as he thanked his family, staff and supporters.
He capped his remarks by tapping the lectern with his right hand, a superstition he started in the 2008 campaign. This time, however, it was not emphatic and urgent, but rather soft and understated, the restrained final gesture of a president who once symbolized hope but was departing the national stage at a time of unpredictable change.