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Barack Obama

‘Yes we did’: forceful and tearful, Obama says goodbye in emotional speech

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 9:48am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 10:41pm

US President Barack Obama addressed America and the world for the final time as president Tuesday, in a speech that was both a tearful goodbye and a call to arms.

Capping his eight years in the White House, Obama returned to his adoptive hometown of Chicago to recast his “yes we can” campaign credo as “yes we did.”

Listing landmarks of his presidency - from the Iran nuclear deal to reforming healthcare - much of the speech was dedicated to lifting up supporters shaken by Donald Trump’s shock election.

Read the full text of Obama's farewell speech

Obama called on them to pick up the torch, fight for democracy and forge a new “social compact”.

“For all our outward differences, we are all in this together,” he said warning that partisanship, racism, and inequality all threatened democracy.

“We rise or fall as one.”

“All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.”

Watch: Obama give his final address as US president

Obama’s valedictory speech in Chicago was a public meditation on the trials and triumphs, promises kept and promises broken that made up his eight years in the White House. Arguing his faith in America had been confirmed, Obama said he ends his tenure inspired by America’s “boundless capacity” for reinvention, and he declared: “The future should be ours.”

His delivery was forceful for most of his speech, but by the end he was wiping away tears as the crowd embraced him one last time.

Reflecting on the corrosive recent political campaign, he said: “That potential will be realised only if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”

He made no mention of Trump, who will replace him in just 10 days. But when he noted the imminence of that change and the crowd began booing, he responded, “No, no, no, no, no.” One of the nation’s great strengths, he said, “is the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next.”

Earlier, as the crowd of thousands chanted, “Four more years,” he simply smiled and said, “I can’t do that.”

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Diehard fans - many African Americans - braved Chicago’s frigid winter to collect free tickets, which were selling for upwards of $1,000 a piece on Craigslist.

They were joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill -- who the president described as “family” in an emotional finale to his speech.

Wiping a tear from his eye, Obama paid poignant tribute to his own family, his daughter Malia who was present and Sasha who was not, and the first lady who he addressed as his best friend.

“You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor,” he said.

“A new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You’ve made me proud. You’ve made the country proud.”

Soon Obama and his family will exit the national stage, to be replaced by Trump, a man Obama had stridently argued poses a dire threat to the nation’s future.

His near-apocalyptic warnings throughout the campaign have cast a continuing shadow over his post-election efforts to reassure Americans anxious about the future.

Indeed, much of what Obama accomplished over the past eight years — from health care overhaul and environmental regulations to his nuclear deal with Iran — could potentially be upended by Trump. So even as Obama seeks to define what his presidency meant for America, his legacy remains in question.

Even as Obama said farewell to the nation — in a televised speech of just under an hour — the anxiety felt by many Americans about the future was palpable, and not only in the Chicago convention centre where he stood in front of a giant presidential seal. The political world was reeling from new revelations about an unsubstantiated report that Russia had compromising personal and financial information about Trump.

Steeped in nostalgia, Obama’s return to Chicago was less a triumphant homecoming and more a bittersweet reunion bringing together Obama loyalists and loyal staffers, many of whom have long since left Obama’s service, moved on to new careers and started families. They came from across the country — some on Air Force One, others on their own — to be present for the last major moment of Obama’s presidency.

Seeking inspiration, Obama’s speechwriters spent weeks poring over Obama’s other momentous speeches, including his 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention and his 2008 speech after losing the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton. They also revisited his 2015 address in Selma, Alabama, that both honoured America’s exceptionalism and acknowledged its painful history on civil rights.

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After returning to Washington, Obama will have less than two weeks before he accompanies Trump in the presidential limousine to the Capitol for the new president’s swearing-in. After nearly a decade in the spotlight, Obama will become a private citizen, an elder statesman at 55.

He plans to take some time off, write a book — and immerse himself in a Democratic redistricting campaign.

With an approval rating hovering around 55 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, Obama still carries considerable political weight.

Some 51 percent of Americans polled believe that Trump is doing a bad job as president-elect.

Trump’s unorthodox politics have thrown Obama’s transition and post-presidency plans into flux.

Having vowed a smooth handover of power, Obama has found himself being increasingly critical of Trump as he prepares to leave office on January 20

Many Obama aides who had planned to take exotic holidays or launch coffer-replenishing forays into the private sector are also reassessing their future and mulling a return to the political trenches.

Obama’s foundation is already gearing up for a quasi-political role -- funneling idealistic youngsters into public life.

Associated Press and Agence France-Presse