Washington/Chicago: Barack Obama closes the book on his presidency on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning in India) with a farewell speech in Chicago that will try to lift supporters felled by Donald Trump’s shock victory.
His final speech as president, before thousands who will gather at McCormick Place, is his last chance to try to define what his presidency meant for America. It’s a fitting bookend to what he started eight years ago.
It was in Chicago in 2008 that the nation’s first black president declared victory, and where over the years he tried to cultivate his brand of optimism in American politics.
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“I’ll be thinking back to being a young community organiser, pretty much fresh out of school, and feeling as if my faith in America’s ability to bring about change in our democracy has been vindicated,” Obama said in a White House video previewing his speech.
Diehard fans — many African-Americans — have braved Chicago’s frigid winter to collect free tickets, which now sell for upwards of $1,000 a piece on Craigslist.
The First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden will come along for the ride.
Obama’s cross-country trek would be a sentimental trip down memory lane, were it not slap-bang in the middle of a tumultuous presidential handover.
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Trump has smashed conventions, vowed to efface Obama’s legacy and hurled personal insults left and right.
The 2016 election campaign has raised serious questions about the resilience of US democracy.
In a virtually unprecedented move, US intelligence has accused the Kremlin of tipping the electoral scales in Trump’s favour.
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Democrats, cast into the political wilderness with the loss of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives plus a majority of statehouses, are struggling to regroup.
With an approval rating hovering around 55 percent, Obama will hope to steel them for new battles ahead.
Obama’s chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, started writing the address last month while Obama was vacationing in Hawaii, handing him the first draft on the flight home. By late Monday Obama was immersed in a fourth draft, with Keenan expected to stay at the White House all night to help perfect Obama’s final message.
“It’s not going to be like an anti-Trump speech, it’s not going to be a red meat, rabble rousing thing, it will be statesman-like but it will also be true to him,” Keenan told AFP. “It will tell a story.”
Life After White House
Trump’s unorthodox politics has thrown 55-year-old Obama’s transition and post-presidency plans into flux.
Obama, having vowed a smooth handover of power, finds himself being increasingly critical of Trump as he prepares to leave office on January 20.
After that there will still be a holiday and an autobiography, but Obama could find himself being dragged back into the political fray if Trump were to enact a Muslim registry or deport adults brought to the United States years ago by their parents.
Having vowed to take a backseat in politics, Obama’s second act could yet be as politically engaged as Jimmy Carter — whose post-presidency has remade his image as an elder statesman.
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Many Obama aides who had planned to take exotic holidays or launch coffer-replenishing forays into the private sector are also reassessing their future and mulling a return to the political trenches.
Obama’s foundation is already gearing up for a quasi-political role — funneling idealistic youngsters into public life.
Presidents since George Washington have delivered a farewell address of sorts.
Washington’s final 7,641-word message — which is still read once a year in the Senate by tradition — contained warnings about factionalism and interference by foreign powers that seem oddly prescient.
But speechwriter Keenan sees few obvious templates: “Bush and Clinton did theirs from here (the White House), George H.W. Bush went to West Point, gave a foreign policy speech,” he told AFP. “They are all totally different.”
The trip to Chicago is not just for nostalgia, Keenan indicated.
“The thread that has run though his career from his days as community organizer to the Oval Office is the idea that if you get ordinary people together and get them educated, get them empowered, get them to act on something, that’s when good things happen,” he said.
“For him, as someone who started as a community organiser, whose campaign was powered by young people, ordinary people, we decided we wanted to go back to Chicago.”
“Chicago is not just his hometown, it’s where his career started.”
And now it is also where Obama’s presidential career will effectively end.