In final speech, Obama must reconcile his hopes with Trump’s
By JOSH LEDERMAN
WASHINGTON — Now an elder statesman, Barack Obama is returning to Chicago where he launched his unlikely political career to tell Americans not to lose faith in their future, no matter what they think about their next president.
Obama’s final speech tonight as president, before thousands who will gather at McCormick Place, is his last chance to try to define what his presidency meant for America. It’s a fitting bookend to what he started eight years ago. It was in Chicago in 2008 that the nation’s first black president declared victory, and where over the years he tried to cultivate his brand of optimism in American politics.
“I’ll be thinking back to being a young community organizer, pretty much fresh out of school, and feeling as if my faith in America’s ability to bring about change in our democracy has been vindicated,” Obama said in a White House video previewing his speech.
Obama said he’s leaving his eight years in office with two basic lessons: that Americans are fundamentally good, and that change can happen. “The system will respond to ordinary people coming together to try to move the country in a better direction,” he said.
The system did respond, in November, to Americans who by and large rejected Obama’s policies by electing Republican Donald Trump.
Obama and Democrats had warned against a Trump presidency in apocalyptic terms. So now Obama’s daunting task — the closing act of his political career — is to explain how his vision of America remains relevant and achievable for Democrats in the Trump era.
No stranger to high-stakes speeches, Obama rose to national prominence on the power of his oratory. But this speech is different, White House officials said.
Determined not to simply recite a history of the last eight years, Obama directed his team to craft an address that would feel “bigger than politics” and speak to all Americans — including those who voted for Trump.
His chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, started writing it last month while Obama was vacationing in Hawaii, handing him the first draft on the flight home. By late Monday Obama was immersed in a fourth draft, with Keenan expected to stay at the White House all night to help perfect Obama’s final message.
In his weekly address Saturday, Obama acknowledged that the chaos of Washington makes it easy to lose sight of the role American citizens play in democracy. He said that while he leaves office with his work unfinished, he believes his administration made the U.S. “a stronger place for the generations that follow ours.”
Seeking inspiration, Obama’s speechwriters spent weeks poring over Obama’s other momentous speeches, including his 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention and his 2008 speech after losing the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton. They also revisited his 2015 address in Selma, Alabama, that both honored America’s exceptionalism and acknowledged its painful history on civil rights.
Former aides were brought back to consult on the speech, including advisers David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, and former speechwriter Jon Favreau, said the officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the private discussions.
The president, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will all travel to Chicago for the speech at McCormick Place, a sprawling convention center along Lake Michigan. For Obama, it will be his final trip aboard Air Force One as president, though he’ll use the plane to depart Washington for an unspecified destination next week just after Trump is inaugurated.