PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA waves as he arrives to give his presidential farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago Tuesday,.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA waves as he arrives to give his presidential farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago Tuesday,.

In a striking setting reminiscent of the elaborately staged events of President Ronald Reagan, President Barack Obama, in his adopted hometown of Chicago, entered McCormick Place on a red carpet, with more flags providing a backdrop than might usually be expected. The podium had the familiar presidential seal, always visible when a president is to speak, but as a backdrop behind the president this was perhaps the largest seal associated with such an event. The message was clear: In the days leading up to noon on January 20, there is only one President, and that is Barack Obama.

The flags are a new trapping of power for presidents and those seeking the presidency, emerging out of the transition in 2000, when the election remained undecided until December. Early on, in the “interregnum” period when it wasn’t known whether popular vote winner Al Gore or George W. Bush would claim the undecided Florida electoral votes, Bush began appearing before the press in a setting more reminiscent of a sitting president — flags always positioned behind Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, and chairs that looked like they might have been borrowed from his father’s presidential library. The six or so American flags as a backdrop soon became an identifiable feature for twenty-first-century presidential candidates, the president-elect, as well as the incumbent in the White House.

While President George Washington’s Farewell Address is often quoted, and read in the Senate each year, such a message to the American people did not become an established tradition until the mid-twentieth century. Washington’s message was most memorable for its warning of the dangers of factions, and its admonishment to “steer clear” of entangling alliances with other countries.

The advent of radio and television provided a way for presidents leaving office in January to directly speak to the American people, as well as send messages more broadly to those engaged in governing, both in the United States and globally. Both Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford, former party leaders while serving in the Senate and House respectively, opted to deliver their farewell messages via a State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress.

In his Farewell Address before a crowd of 20,000 and a national television audience, President Obama gave a heartfelt “thanks” to the people of Chicago who had launched his political career, and said goodbye to his many friends, family, and supporters. Among the loyal supporters were former campaign members, some who had worked on his 2004 Senate election and both of his bids for President in 2008 and 2012. The audience included current and former members of the Obama administration. In addition, President Obama personally thanked the people of Chicago, many of whom had endured frigid temperatures to wait in line early on a Saturday morning to obtain a coveted ticket to the event.

In watching President Obama’s farewell speech to the nation, one couldn’t help but be struck by the substance and eloquence of his oration, and note the ending of an administration that emerged scandal free. Reporters in the convention center, observing the crowd as well as the President, noted how his warmly received address actually kept cell phone recordings at bay as the crowd became absorbed in the speech. Electioneering was over.

As he spoke, Barack Obama, former constitutional law professor, emphasized a hallmark of American democracy — a peaceful transition of power. He reiterated a pledge of support from his administration to help the President-elect, and he noted the ingredient needed for a democratic republic to work— compromise. Absent from the speech was any rancor over the recent election. An emphasis on democracy suggested that President elect Trump should take note of his shortfall in winning the popular vote total, losing by nearly three million votes to Hillary Clinton. While emphasizing that “the work of democracy has always been hard” and can be “contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody,” he balanced his remarks between reciting the accomplishments of his administration, while acknowledging areas that still needed work.

Obama also returned to a theme dominant in the last two years of his presidency — race, “a potent and often divisive force in our society,” and suggested links to the recent presidential election, how the Democratic Party can move forward, and to his planned work on racial and partisan gerrymandering upon leaving the White House. Obama drew upon the “advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch. Who said you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face … refugee … immigrant … rural poor … the transgender American, 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….For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the sixties.”

President Obama seemed to have a special message to young people and people of color who were brought into the political process with his campaigns and election. He urged continued work—have hope, there will be change, but don’t lose hope, and work to further change. Near the end of his speech he noted: “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. Sometimes, you’ll win. Sometimes you lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that could be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this work and to see it up close, let me tell you — it can energize and inspire.”

But the work of the Obama administration is a beginning — not all of that work will last, and Obama himself has embraced the potential changes to a major legacy of his administration — a step closer to health insurance and access to health care for all. He has encouraged efforts to make the Affordable Care Act better, with expanding coverage, and reducing healthcare costs.

In spite of an audience of 20,000, President Obama seemed to talk to each person in the room. With the speech coming to a close, Obama turned to his family and to his Vice President. In the most moving tribute in the speech, his words to Michelle were matched by the love and inseparable bond that could be seen in their facial expressions.

The aftermath of the speech did not command the singular focus of journalists and political pundits often given to a sitting president following a national prime time address. The media had dueling storylines, with a potential political scandal, as further questions were raised regarding why candidate (and then President-elect) Trump was consumed in building ties to Russia, and this second storyline began to be the featured subject of political analysts.

But the final words of Obama’s speech, so familiar to the American public, will linger long after the speech, “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”

Janet Martin, professor of government at Bowdoin College.


Comments are not available on this story.