WASHINGTON — Popular but politically humbled, President Barack Obama says goodbye to the nation Tuesday night in a dramatic reinterpretation of a presidential farewell address.
Hoping to capitalize on a well of goodwill that’s expanded in the final year of his tenure, Obama has discarded the staid Oval Office or East Room for his last formal set of remarks. Instead, he’ll travel to Chicago, the city where he declared victory in 2008 and 2012, to address a sold-out crowd of ardent supporters.
The moment, conceived months ago, is meant to recall the most iconic moments of Obama’s historic tenure, ones rooted in the “hope and change” message that carried the first African-American to the White House.
As he departs office leaving scores of progressive policies in place, there’s ample evidence of change. But for his backers, the “hope” aspect of that original mantra is diminished by the prospects of Donald Trump’s presidency.
On Tuesday, Obama aims to revive the spirits of progressives who he’d hoped to rally behind Hillary Clinton. Though his speech won’t be policy-oriented or carry any direct contrasts with Trump, his message will offer a “hopeful” vision for the future, according to administration officials.
Obama in his speech wants to cast a “forward-looking” vision for a country, those officials say, insisting his message won’t be directed solely at his successor. Planned declarations that the nation benefits from diversity and fairness, however, will surely be regarded as admonitions to the future commander in chief.
“The President is primarily delivering a message to the American people, all Americans, whether they voted for President Obama or not,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Monday. “The President feels an obligation to talk about what he’s learned of the last eight years, what he’s learned about the country, what he’s learned about governing the country, and offer up his advice to the American people about the most effective way to confront the challenges that we see ahead.”
Obama’s speech is the capstone of a months-long farewell tour, manifested in extended magazine interviews, lengthy television sit-downs, and the White House’s own efforts to document the President’s waning administration.
Through it all, Obama has sought to highlight the achievements of his presidency using statistics showing the country better off now than eight years ago. He’s offered a rational view of Trump’s election and rarely lets on to any apprehension about his future as an ex-president.
First lady Michelle Obama has offered a more candid view in a scaled-back version of her own farewell. She sat for an hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey, frankly admitting that Democrats were now “feeling what not having hope feels like.”
And she became emotional during her final set of formal remarks at the White House Friday, her voice quaking and eyes welling with tears as she told a crowd of educators: “I hope I made you proud.”
The first lady’s subdued but deeply felt departure stands in sharp contrast to the President’s own farewell speech Tuesday. Upwards of 20,000 people are expected to view the address at McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America where Obama declared victory over Mitt Romney in 2012.
Obama has been planning his speech for months, aides said, formulating the broad themes while on vacation over the holidays in Hawaii and developing drafts starting last week.
He told aides months ago that he preferred to deliver his farewell address in his hometown, a first for a departing President. George W. Bush, unpopular and facing a financial crisis, delivered his final prime-time address in the White House East Room to a crowd of 200 supporters and aides.
Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter all used the Oval Office — a setting Obama has long spurned for formal remarks. George H.W. Bush traveled outside of Washington to West Point for a departing address after failing to secure a second term, though he didn’t actually bill it as a farewell.
The tradition extends back to George Washington, who issued warnings against unchecked power and partisan entrenchment in a written address to the nation in 1796.
Like major addresses in the past, Obama is writing his speech himself, dictating passages to his chief speechwriter Cody Keenan who puts the President’s words into print. Obama returns the drafts with heavy annotations, writing his changes in a tightly compressed scrawl on the margins.
The President and Keenan have gone through at least four drafts of the farewell speech, an official told CNN Tuesday.
They expect work to continue well into the day before Obama departs for Chicago in the late afternoon.
The broad themes of the speech came together while the President was in Hawaii and he started reading a first draft on the long flight home last Sunday.
Aside from Keenan, several familiar names from the past have been involved in the drafting, including former speechwriter Jon Favreau and former senior adviser David Axelrod.
Aides expected the drafting process to extend into Tuesday before Obama departs for Chicago in the afternoon.
When he returns to Washington in the early morning hours of Wednesday, it’s expected to be Obama’s final flight aboard Air Force One. He’ll use the presidential aircraft on Inauguration Day to depart Washington. But with only a former president aboard, it’s known simply as “Special Air Mission 28000.”
President Obama’s address will begin Tuesday at 9 p.m. and you can watch it live on WNEP and WNEP.com.