President Barack Obama on Tuesday returned to Chicago – where he gave his victory speech in 2008 – to deliver an emotional farewell speech in front of thousands of Americans, calling on the people to defend their democracy.
In choosing Chicago, Obama had earlier said he wanted to return to “where it all started” for him and First Lady Michelle Obama, instead of delivering the speech from the White House.
Obama said that it was in Chicago as a young man, “still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for purpose in my life”, that he “witnessed the power of faith and dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss”.
“This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged and they come together to demand it,” he said, adding that “After eight years as your president I still believe that.
“Obama delivered a mostly positive message to Americans after a divisive election campaign which saw Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In his speech, President Obama insisted that “By almost every measure,America is a better, stronger place” than it was eight years ago when he took office, warning, however, that “democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted”.
He implored Americans of all backgrounds to consider things from each other’s point of view, saying “we have to pay attention and listen”.
The country’s first black president, now 55, was first elected in 2008 on a message of hope and change.Chants of “four more years” from the crowd were brushed aside by the president.
“I can’t do that,” he said with a smile His successor, Donald Trump, has vowed to undo some of Obama’s signature policies once he is sworn into office on 20 January.
But striking an upbeat tone, Obama said that the peaceful transfer of power between presidents was a “hallmark” of American democracy.He however outlined three threats to democracy in the country – economic inequality, racial divisions and the retreat of different segments of society into “bubbles”, where opinions are not based on “some common baseline of facts”.
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life,” he said to laughter and applause.
Obama said that young Americans – including those who worked on his campaigns, and who believe “in a fair, just, inclusive America” – left him feeling “even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started”.
He also called for respect for the science of climate change before drawing one of his biggest applause lines: “I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans.”
“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” Obama said.Though he did not mention President-elect Donald Trump by name, parts of his speech obviously read like a rebuttal to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Analysts say Tuesday’s speech highlighted a stark difference between the two men: Obama’s preference for delivering reflective and historically literate orations, and Trump’s penchant for expressing himself in Tweets.
Some 18,000 people attended the farewell address at McCormick Place, the largest convention centre in North America and the venue for Obama’s speech after he defeated Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
As he leaves the Oval Office, Obama is viewed favourably by 57% of Americans, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public AffairsResearch poll, a similar level to Bill Clinton when he left office.
In his closing remarks, the first ever African-American President said he had one final request for Americans as president: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.”