Barack Obama’s bittersweet farewell back home
President Obama’s decision to go home to Chicago to deliver his farewell address to the nation was not too surprising, considering he will be leaving a Washington that over the last eight years has brought him as much heartache as satisfaction.
His televised speech before a packed crowd at the spacious McCormick Place convention center brought him wave after wave of appreciative applause as he predictably recited the major accomplishments of his presidency. They ran from ending the Great Recession at the start of his tenure, cutting the national unemployment rate in half, overseeing a streak of 75 straight months of job growth and providing health insurance for 20 million Americans in the plan that critics named, for better or for worse, after him.
Chants at one point of "Four more years!" were heard in what was wishful thinking, barred as it is by the two-term constitutional limit. "I can’t do that," Obama quipped. Ironically, even as that call was raised, Congress back in Obama’s temporary hometown was preparing to carry out his selected successor’s pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare as soon as possible after taking over.
The departing president will be attempting to save it against the strong headwind of Donald Trump’s upset victory, and his premature encroachments on the presidential turf ever since then. Indeed, Trump’s specter lingered over the bittersweet farewell to Chicago’s retiring favorite son.
When Obama early in the speech mentioned that in a few days "the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy," many in the crowd shouted "No!" But he shouted back "No!" several times, before continuing: "- the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next."
As the audience now applauded, he reminded them, "I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me," to more applause. "Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face."
Striving to lift spirits, Obama accentuated the positive while acknowledging "our progress has been uneven." He conceded that "for every two steps forward we take one step back," minimizing the immense significance of Trump’s Electoral College victory. As if to soften the blow, he added: "But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some."
The latter remark seemed to represent more hope than expectation. Yet for the most part, the departing president was in a cool, celebratory and upbeat mood, offering in his farewell the sharpest of contrasts to his absent successor’s bombast, self-aggrandizement and insensitivities to women and minorities, which played to huge raucous campaign rallies across the country.
Obama basked in the thunderous applause for his wife, fellow Chicagoan Michelle, and for Vice President Joe Biden, whose selection Obama described as his first and best decision. Biden’s popularity with the Democratic faithful has endured within the party well after his decision last year not to make a third bid for the presidency. A blue-collar icon from Scranton, he might have run well in the Rust Belt, where Democrat faltered badly.
The Obama goodbye in Chicago came amid continuing public and press turmoil over accounts of Russia’s covert efforts to influence the U.S. election, which dominated headlines and television coverage as the Obamas prepared to move out of the White House. The furor for many has cast an uncommon and unfortunate pall on the change-of-command celebrations that have historically lightened spirits in the nation’s capital when a new president is elected.
This time, there’s as much apprehension here as there will be jubilation from the folks who voted Trump into office as an agent of change, largely undefined beyond his bombastic promise to make America great again. But in Chicago, Obama offered the case, to rousing assent, that America has never stopped being great. The change that looms ahead with Donald Trump surely will put the country to that test.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.