On the scene as Obama bids farewell

On the scene as Obama bids farewell
President Barack Obama waves to the crowd after delivering his farewell address. (Marie Machin)

CHICAGO—The scene at the McCormick Place convention center was like a rock concert. Crowds descended on this gargantuan place by the Lake Michigan shore, many of them outwardly giddy about their luck in getting a ticket. A space with restaurants and bars in an adjacent Hyatt hotel was packed beforehand, with people eating, drinking, and laughing. A makeshift souvenir shop with unlicensed merchandise popped up near the entrance to the center. And it wasn't hard to spot hundreds of people wearing shirts from the last tour—or, in this case, political campaign.

An estimated 18,000 people came here for the farewell speech of President Barack Obama, the man who began his public life here as a civil rights lawyer and community organizer and rose to the Illinois State Senate and U.S. Senate before winning the White House for two terms.


They came here because they loved him. Fears or doubts about the incoming administration were checked at the door.

But first, an actual concert or sorts.

Illinois native Eddie Vedder, joined by members of the Chicago Children's Choir, warmed up the show with a performance that included his song 'Rise,' Labi Siffre's '(Something Inside) So Strong,' and a version of Neil Young's 'Rockin' In the Free World' that started as an acoustic dirge and ascended to a soulful howl.

There was an act of foreshadowing too: a performance of Patti Smith's 'People Have the Power.'

Obama, after offering his thank yous to applause and Beatlemania-esque shrieks, said it was his conversations with the people, even the ones who didn't agree with him, that kept him going.

"And every day, I have learned from you," he said. "You made me a better President, and you made me a better man."

Calling back to his early days in Chicago, he said he learned here "that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it."

It's one of the core principles set forth by the Founding Fathers, he said.

"It's the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union."

This would be a recurring theme.

Earlier reports indicated that this would not be a victory-lap, but there was some that too. He checked off accomplishments such as the Affordable Care Act, taking out Osama bin Laden, and job growth.

Mostly, though, he looked forward, drawing a direct line between the change that got him into office and the work that would need to be done to keep pushing ahead. The rabid partisanship in our government and national dialogue, and the problems we still face, demand that we must, he argued.

"We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can't be complacent about the goals themselves," he said.  "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."

"But laws alone won't be enough," he later said. "Hearts must change."


This means minorities must tie their struggles not only with refugees, immigrants, and transgender people, but also the "middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he's got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change."

By the same token, white people have to acknowledge "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." And that their ancestors, when they came here as immigrants, often had the same slurs thrown at them that many are using for the new people coming into the country today.

"Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: citizen."

He said it again, with a little more emphasis: "Citizen."

"So, you see, that's what our democracy demands," he continued. "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."

Here, he got into a bit of a groove, talking with some of the passion and fire that helped launch him to prominence after his speech at the DNC in 2004.

"If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it."

There won't always be wins and forward motion, he said, but "more often than not, your faith in America—and in Americans—will be confirmed."

The president then changed the subject.

"Michelle," he said before being interrupted by shrieks and a long applause. The president started to wear his emotions on his face.

"Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side, for the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend."

He looked down at the podium, his eyes starting to well a bit.

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

The president took a half step back from the podium and scrunched his mouth as the emotions got to him more. He took out a kerchief and wiped away a tear from his right eye.

He then gulped and nodded his head, regaining composure.

"You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody," he said. "And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model."

"So you have made me proud. And you have made the country proud."

He then turned to his daughters, Malia and Sasha, though Sasha was absent, the White House press corps later learned, because she was back in Washington studying for an exam. They've become "two amazing young women," he said, handling the pressure of living under the White House spotlight so easily.

"Of all that I've done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad," he said.

Next came Vice President Joe Biden, with Obama calling his choice to pick the senator from Delaware his best. "Not just because you have been a great Vice President, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother. And we love you and Jill like family, and your friendship has been one of the great joys of our lives."

He then thanked his staff for their eight years of work and dedication, and reached back to all the volunteers and organizers who helped grow his unlikely presidential bid in 2008.

In that same spirit, the president called on young people "to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves."


And he offered great faith in that next generation, endorsing its "unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic" attitude.

"You know that constant change has been America's hallmark; that it's not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You'll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands."

Trump may be in office soon, but the long game still skews toward Obama.

To close, Obama called being president the "honor of his life" and promised to stay involved after leaving office. And he asked the people for one final thing: "I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours."

"I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can."

His voice rose.

"Yes, we did. Yes, we can."