President Barack Obama stepped into the spotlight one last time at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago, Illinois, on Tuesday evening. In the city where his political career began, Obama gave a 50-minute farewell address to the nation. With a large presidential seal overhead and a row of flags lining the stage, Obama reflected on his eight years in the White House, talked about the future of the country, and said “thank you” to the American people.
“You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started,” Obama said to a crowd of about 18,000, just ten days before Donald Trump is sworn into office as the country’s 45th president.
The appreciation and gratitude in the room was mutual. Audience members cheered, broke into applause, and chanted “Four more years! Four more years!” during the speech. Obama was spirited at times and tearful at others.
A Call to Action
While much of Obama’s address was optimistic, appreciative, and celebratory, the president also acknowledged that the country faces certain threats. In his speech, Obama warned of closed-mindedness, economic inequality, and racism as threats to the American political system.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment,” Obama said. “It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”
When Obama spoke these words, he was only the tenth U.S. president to deliver a formal goodbye, according to author Gleaves Whitney.
America’s first-ever presidential farewell came from George Washington, in 1796. It is one of the most influential statements in American political history. In his speech, Washington warned that political parties could become a threat to the country’s unity.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower also gave an influential farewell address, in 1961. In the face of the Cold War, he spoke about the importance of using American strength and power “in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”
Many farewell speeches given by past U.S. presidents have been significant because they say something about the era and the political climate in which they are given. They also give important advice for the future of American political relations. Obama, in his speech, emphasized the importance of taking action in order to preserve American democracy.
“For all of our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen,” Obama said. “Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”
Looking Back and Ahead
As the president wrapped up his speech, he turned his attention back to his eight years in office. Obama thanked the people who helped him during his time in the White House. Forcing back tears, he praised First Lady Michelle Obama and his daughters, Malia and Sasha. Obama also thanked vice president Joe Biden, as well as members of his staff.
“I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started,” Obama concluded. “Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans—especially so many young people out there—to believe that you can make a difference.”
Finally, Obama assured Americans that he would spend the rest of his life working alongside them to make a difference. As he stepped away from the podium, Obama spoke some familiar words: “Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Yes, we can.” It was the same chant that energized his supporters when he was first elected, in 2009.