President Barack Obama gives farewell address to the nation

Behind the scenes
National and local media prepare for President Barack Obama to deliver his farewell speech to the nation at McCormick Place in Chicago on Jan. 10, 2017. (MEDILL/ Christen Gall)

By Christen Gall

President Barack Obama said farewell to the nation from his Chicago hometown this week, just miles away from Grant Park, the location of his acceptance speech eight years earlier.

“My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well-wishes we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight it’s my turn to say thanks,” Obama told the crowd at McCormick Place on Jan. 10, where shouts of “four more years” could be heard from the crowd early on in his address.

Eight years ago on Nov. 4, 2008, Chicagoans were ecstatic as the young U.S. senator from Illinois stood in Grant Park with his wife Michelle and then-elementary school-aged daughters Sasha and Malia to accept the election results as the nation’s newly elected African American president juxtaposed by the city’s stark racial segregation.

“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight because of what we did in this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” Obama told a roaring crowd that fall night.

His 2008 speech focused on that change and the long road ahead, but ultimately gave the American public ownership over his victory and in democracy, “I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you,” said Obama in Grant Park. “This is your victory.”

His farewell address on Tuesday empowered the nation once again to take ahold of democracy and “preserve it with “jealous anxiety;” in the words of George Washington.

“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift,” said Obama. “But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

Obama, speaking to a crowd of about 18,000, many of whom stood for hours in near-zero degree temperatures at daybreak three days earlier for a ticket, encouraged Americans to stay involved in the work of democracy over a lifetime and he called for dialogue with people who hold different political ideologies in person, rather than the internet, or to get involved in politics if they are disappointed by their elected officials.

“Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy: citizen,” Obama said

And as Obama called American citizens toward improving the nation, he promised to join in the work toward democracy.

“My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you,” he said. “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain.”

In his finale, Obama recalled the campaign days and asked the American people to hope.

“I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago,” said Obama. “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”

And just like he chanted from Grant Park, Obama ended with “Yes we can,” repeating his old campaign slogan as he said farewell.

South Sider Joyce Brown was at Grant Park in 2008 — and at McCormick Place on Tuesday. “It was surreal. It was like a fairytale,” Brown said. Of his farewell speech, she said “he was more real in calling out the issues of racism, of sexism, all the things he’s been so diplomatic about.”

Obama summarized his thoughts on Twitter shortly after the speech.

Medill Reporters staffers Katie Watkins and Ritu Prasad contributed to this report.

Photo at top: National and local media prepare for President  Barack Obama to deliver his farewell speech to the nation at McCormick Place in Chicago on Jan. 10, 2017. (MEDILL/ Christen Gall)