President Barack Obama will draw an implicit contrast with his successor in his farewell address Tuesday night, acknowledging that despite his historic election eight years ago his vision for the country will exit the White House with him.
Obama’s prime-time address from his adopted hometown of Chicago will be a sermon on political engagement after a grueling election won by Republican Donald Trump, who made undoing Obama’s achievements the centerpiece of his campaign. The president will make a final appeal for the American people to embrace inclusiveness and to preserve his legacy before his successor is inaugurated Jan. 20.
The transition to Trump’s presidency looms large over the address, and one senior administration official familiar with the speech-drafting process said that Obama recognizes the conflicting emotions within the nation’s electorate. Obama and his aides are also aware that many supporters gathering in Chicago are dismayed that his election eight years ago served as the high-water mark for a Democratic Party that has been electorally ravaged at every level of government since, and now finds itself in the wilderness.
But Obama wants the address to be inclusive, transcending politics, and organized around the belief that his administration — and the history of the country — demonstrates the power of engagement between citizens and the government, according to the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the speech text before it was delivered.
“Remember that America is a story told over a longer time horizon, in fits and starts, punctuated at times by hardship, but ultimately written by generations of citizens who’ve somehow worked together, without fanfare, to form a more perfect union,” Obama said in a Jan. 7 radio address previewing his final speech.
The speech will be one of the president’s last opportunities to make the case for policies, like the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street regulation, that the incoming administration has vowed to repeal. But aides said it won’t be a self-congratulatory list of accomplishments. Instead, Obama will appeal to citizens to embrace tolerance, drawing an unspoken contrast with the president-elect, who has called for walling off the U.S. border with Mexico and ending the admission of refugees from war-torn Muslim countries.
Obama is committed to delivering “a forward-looking speech” that will focus primarily on “what the president believes is necessary for confronting the challenges ahead,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday.
The address will promote values including fairness, justice, and nondiscrimination, Earnest added. Obama will stress that “diversity is a strength” of the nation.
Work on the address began during Obama’s holiday vacation in Hawaii, with the president’s chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, working poolside to finish a draft he presented to the president on the flight home to Washington. Obama provided feedback through the early days of January, producing three additional drafts, but has lamented not being able to devote more time to the task, the person familiar with the process said.
Monday night was the president’s first chance to extensively edit and rewrite, and work on the speech is expected to continue throughout the day Tuesday. Members of the president’s various policy teams hadn’t been given drafts to review even on Monday, reflecting an address intended to be more thematic than a laundry list of accomplishments.
Aides cautioned that the speech will not be a call-to-arms for the Democratic resistance to Trump. But the remarks will likely preview how the president, who remains popular despite his party’s devastating and sweeping losses in November’s elections, hopes to continue inspiring supporters once he’s exited office and Republicans have seized all levers of power in Washington.
Obama is ramping up planning for his post-presidency, with every indication that he’s betting better political organization can help reverse the losses Democrats experienced under his leadership.
Obama has hired his White House political director, David Simas, as the chief executive officer of his foundation, a signal that he expects to remain connected to the Democratic policy and donor classes. His foundation has said that a training center for grassroots organizing will be part of his presidential library, and he also plans to partner with former Attorney General Eric Holder to promote an overhaul of congressional redistricting. Some administration officials may also join the president’s Chicago-based political committee, Organizing for Action, which grew out of his successful presidential campaigns.
“The running thread through my career has been the notion that when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together in collective effort, things change for the better,” the president said in his radio address.
Thousands of Chicagoans lined up in single-digit temperatures over the weekend in hopes of scoring tickets to the speech. A sizable contingent of current and former Obama staffers will travel to the city for the remarks, and the president is expected to attend a gathering of administration alumni in conjunction with the event. Some of Obama’s staffers have already been furloughed from the White House, and the Chicago address will be their final chance to see the president before he departs office on Jan. 20.
The address is expected to garner coverage across the cable news networks’ prime-time lineups, and it will cap a winding farewell tour for the president.
On Friday night, the Obama and his wife, Michelle, hosted hundreds of friends and celebrities at the White House for a party that wound into the early morning hours. Attendees at the event included Jerry Seinfeld, Paul McCartney, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, and Stevie Wonder.
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Justin Sink