CHICAGO – In his final major speech before leaving the White House, President Obama on Tuesday marked the country’s progress since he took office on a range of social and economic fronts, but warned Americans not to become complacent in the face of the racial and class divisions put on display in the 2016 election.
At turns wistful and workmanlike, Mr. Obama touched on the major themes of his presidency, from health care to marriage equality to the economic recovery accomplished on his watch.
After eight years in office, Mr. Obama said, he still believed in the power of “ordinary people” to bring about real change. “And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea – our bold experiment in self-government,” he said.
But, noting that “progress has been uneven,” Mr. Obama stressed that more work needs to be done. And though he rarely mentioned his successor by name, Donald Trump’s election hung in the air.
“For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back,” Mr. Obama said.
It was an emotional night for the thousands of supporters who lined up hours in advance for the chance to see Mr. Obama one last time before he steps down from office.
The event took place at the McCormick Convention center, in the same hall where Mr. Obama spoke on the night of his 2012 re-election, and not far from Grant Park, where he addressed supporters after winning the presidency four years earlier.
“I was in tears” when Mr. Obama was elected in 2008, said Keniesha Charleston, 37, who attended the Grant Park speech and showed up on Tuesday for the president’s farewell address. “I was like, I can’t believe we have an African-American president. I was just overjoyed,” said Charleston, who is black.
Now, eight years later, Charleston said she was having trouble coming to terms with the fact that Mr. Obama was about to leave office. “I have a lot of mixed emotions right now,” she said. “I’m going to miss him.”
Montas Ivanauskas, 22, an immigrant from Lithuania, began waiting online at 2 a.m. Monday morning for a chance to get a ticket to see Mr. Obama speak. He said the wait was worth it, even though he could not see the president from his spot near the back of the hall.
But Ivanauskaus and other supporters said the excitement of seeing Mr. Obama was mixed with anxiety over Trump’s victory.
“It’s kind of scary,” Kamiah Mitchell, 18, a Chicago native and freshman at DePaul University, said of Trump’s election. Mitchell said she wasn’t ready to see Mr. Obama go.
“Because I’m African-American, when he came in, he made me feel like I can do anything,” she said. “He set a great example for us.”
Mr. Obama spent a lengthy portion of his speech on race, addressing the topic head on in way that he rarely has in the past eight years.
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” Mr. Obama said.
“All of us have more work to do,” he added. “After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps, while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
The blunt talk about race represented a break from the farewell speeches of past presidents.
Most of George W. Bush’s farewell speech in 2009 was devoted to the threat of terrorism, and his administration’s efforts to protect the nation from danger.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Bush recalled the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and his decision to start the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush acknowledged that there was a “legitimate debate about many of these decisions,” a nod, perhaps, to the American public’s frustration with his foreign policy, and his own sinking popularity. Bush left office with approval ratings hovering around 30 percent.
But Bush defended his belief that promoting freedom around the world was one of the United States’ chief responsibilities. “We must reject isolationism,” Bush said in his speech, adding that “retreating behind our borders would only invite danger.”
The remarks stand in sharp contrast to the worldview espoused by Trump, the Republican Party’s most influential leader since Bush. They also offer a reminder of how quickly politics can change. Trump opposes U.S. intervention abroad, and has called for measures to close the country’s borders.
At the same time, Trump’s fascination with the military — echoed by the number of former generals who he has named to senior positions in his administration — marks a departure from another outgoing Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who famously warned of the growing influence of the military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961.
Unlike Eisenhower and Bush, who focused on a few central themes in their farewell speeches, Mr. Obama chose to cover more ground in his final major speech as president.
He spoke about climate change, national security, terrorism and other topics. Still, he kept returning to the issue of equality, and his hope that Americans would continue to push for social and economic change.
“This generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America,” Mr. Obama said. “You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace.”
Before Mr. Obama spoke, a slide show of photographs from his years in office played on scoreboards above the stage: the president lounging with his youngest daughter, Sasha, on the White House lawn; playing basketball with an aide; walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
But the photographs also captured some of the most painful moments of Mr. Obama’s presidency, among them the mass shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut in 2012, and the attack at a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 that killed nine African-American parishioners.
Just hours before Mr. Obama’s speech, Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter, was sentenced to death. Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, is the first person to receive the death penalty for a federal hate crime.
The verdict, coming on the same day as Mr. Obama’s farewell speech, underscored the racism that persists in America today, eight years after the country elected its first black president.
Still, Mr. Obama said he remained “more optimistic” at the end of his presidency than he had been when he took office.
“I do have one final ask of you as your President, the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago,” Mr. Obama said. “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”