US President Barack Obama returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago on Tuesday to defend his legacy and urge Americans to protect democracy from challenges, in a final public speech before he leaves office.
“Yes We Can. Yes We Did,” he said, echoing the slogan of his 2008 presidential campaign, as he was joined on stage at McCormick Place by first lady Michelle Obama and elder daughter Malia, after delivering his final presidential address from the city where he launched his political career.
Obama drew a standing ovation even before his remarks had begun from a crowd of thousands of Chicagoans as well as cabinet secretaries and White House staff.
The moment was bittersweet, as Obama reflected on eight years in office, pointing to economic accomplishments along with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the opening of diplomatic ties with Cuba and an international nuclear deal with Iran as developments that would have seemed unbelievable when he entered office in 2009.
Republican Donald Trump, who will take office after Obama on January 20, hopes to roll back many of those accomplishments and the crowd booed when Obama mentioned the impending power transition.
“Four more years,” some chanted, echoing cries from his 2012 re-election bid.
In his speech, Obama avoided directly criticizing Trump but denounced the divisiveness that has characterized US politics and urged an inclusiveness that runs counter to much of Trump’s rhetoric.
“It’s up to all of us to make sure we can meet the many challenges we still face,” Obama said.
The United States contained great potential, Obama said, “but that potential will only be realized if our democracy works, only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people – only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation help restore the sense of common purpose we so badly need right now.”
He warned that racial, economic and political divisions remain a threat to democracy.
Obama, the first African American president, told supporters that his election had not defeated racism in the US, as many had hoped, with ongoing racial violence dividing the nation.
“Hearts must change,” Obama said, quoting literary icon Atticus Finch from the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird: “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.”
Obama also warned against political polarization, saying Americans are increasingly isolating themselves with those who share similar political views and dismiss information that does not support their existing opinions.
In remarks since the election, Obama has sought to walk a fine line to ensure a smooth transition to Trump, despite significant policy differences with a man he once described as unfit to hold the highest elected office in the country.