In Farewell Speech, Obama Warns Of Threats To Democracy

President Barack Obama wipes away a tear during his farewell address Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017 at McCormick Place. Image: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune

MCCORMICK PLACE (CHICAGO TRIBUNE)--Barack Obama said goodbye Tuesday night to a nation that delivered him a historic presidency and exhorted supporters to work to fulfill democracy's promise as a new era in Washington led by Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump is about to begin.

Even as Obama exits the world and national stage in little more than a week, his nationally broadcast speech to an estimated 18,000 at McCormick Place made clear to thousands of supporters in his adopted hometown of Chicago that his social and civic activism will continue — as a citizen.

Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, daughter Malia and Vice President Joe Biden, the president credited Chicago with playing a crucial role in his path to public service.

"I first came to Chicago when I was in my early twenties and I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life," Obama said in a speech that lasted about 50 minutes.

"And it was in a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss," said Obama, a South Side community organizer. "Now, this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and come together to demand it."

Obama's comments about Chicago came as a woman shouted at him from the audience, holding a sign saying, "Pardon us all now." That prompted supporters to try to shout down the protester by chanting, "Four more years." Police removed the protester.

The farewell speech demonstrated that while Obama is leaving the White House, the 55-year-old president is not headed to quiet retirement amid one-party Republican control of the nation, a controversial successor in the White House and a Democratic Party that finds itself in disarray and without focused leadership.

Instead, the onetime University of Chicago law lecturer delivered a lesson on what he perceives as dangers to democracy, including rising economic inequality, growing racial tensions, fear of terrorism and a fracturing of media that allows people to exist in their own political preference "bubbles," regardless of fact or science.

And while he only mentioned the incoming president once by name — discussing the peaceful transfer of power that will come on Jan. 20 — Obama's message sought to combat some of the concepts and demographic appeals that Trump embraced to win the White House.

Citing the growth of automation in displacing middle-class jobs in the future, Obama called for a new social compact "to guarantee all our kids the education they need, to give workers the power to unionize for better wages, to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code" so corporations and wealthy individuals don't "avoid their obligations to the country."

"We can argue about how to best to achieve these goals. But we can't be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don't create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come," he said.

While Obama said his election as the nation's first black president inspired optimism toward a "post-racial America," he added that such a vision "was never realistic."

He also warned economic divisions have intensified racial divisions, particularly at a time when the growth of the nation's Hispanic population continues. To be serious about race, Obama said laws to fight discrimination in hiring, housing, education and criminal justice must be upheld — and "hearts must change."

"For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face," Obama said, including "the middle-aged white man who, from the outside, may seem like he's got all the advantages, but who's seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change."

For whites, Obama said, "it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our founders promised."

Noting the increasing partisanship that marked his tenure as president, Obama warned another threat to democracy was the trend of people becoming "so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's out there."

"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," he said.

In what may have been his most direct criticism of Trump, Obama spoke of the threat of terrorism, the vigilance of first responders and the military and vowed "ISIL will be destroyed."

But the president also warned that "democracy can buckle when we give in to fear."

"So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are," Obama said.

"That's why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans," he added, drawing loud applause. "That's why we cannot withdraw from global fights — to expand democracy and human rights, women's rights, LGBT rights — no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem."

Obama also warned of complacency and urged all Americans, regardless of party, to "throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. The potential of democracy only works "if our politics better reflects the decency of our people" and if everyone helps to "restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now."

As expected, Obama briefly touched on a list of accomplishments during his tenure, including the Affordable Care Act, which has provided health insurance to 20 million previously uninsured and that the new GOP administration and leadership in Congress has promised to dismantle.

Obama took credit for rescuing the economy he inherited in 2009 as the Great Recession deepened, noting a gradual jobs recovery along with wages that have increased in recent years at a pace faster than at any time in the last four decades.

He also talked up a foreign policy that he characterized as sharply curtailing, but not totally ending, U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; killing Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden; restoring relations with Cuba; and featuring U.S.-led multinational efforts to curb Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons.

"That's what we did. That's what you did. You were the change," he said in summing up his accomplishments. "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."

As he began to close his speech, the president recognized first lady Michelle Obama and wiped away a tear.

"You took on a role you didn't ask for and made it your own with grace and with grit and with style and good humor," he said.

Chicago has held special meaning to Obama, where he moved after serving as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review to become a community organizer, then to serve as a state and U.S. senator and ultimately for eight years as president.

The city served as the base of his presidential campaigns and was a source for his top White House aides. And it helped provide him with the ambition to seek out a career in politics, even as he suffered his only election loss here in a failed 2000 primary challenge to South Side U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.

Obama has acknowledged had he defeated Rush, it might have changed his political trajectory to a point where he would not have even sought the presidency, let alone win the White House.

Long lines of supporters looking to see Obama's last major presidential speech gathered in the rain and wind hours before the event to undergo airport-style security screening.

The Windy City's wind-swept weather on Tuesday night forced the presidential entourage to travel by motorcade to McCormick Place, which included shutting down the in-bound Kennedy Expressway and portions of Lake Shore Drive during rush hour after Air Force One landed at O'Hare International Airport. Usually, the president uses the Marine One helicopter to travel from O'Hare to downtown.

Prior to arriving at McCormick Place, the presidential motorcade arrived at one of Obama's favorite restaurants, Valois, in Hyde Park. He did an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who previously was an anchor and reporter in Chicago.

Among the dozens in the crowd outside was Jessica Simmons, 38, a marketing manager who works in the neighborhood. Simmons said she waited for two hours on a sidewalk along Harper Avenue to catch a brief glimpse of Obama's motorcade.

"He served the country and the people for eight years, and to show my gratitude I can stand out here, wave, send him off and wish him well," Simmons said. "It's absolutely a whole new meaning to 'Thanks, Obama.'"