Obama, Say­ing Good­bye, Warns of Threats to Na­tional Unity

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By MARK LANDLER and JULIE BOSMAN (The New York Times)

Pres­i­dent Obama, de­liv­er­ing a farewell ad­dress in the city that launched his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, de­clared on Tues­day his con­tin­ued con­fi­dence in the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment. But he warned, in the wake of a toxic pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, that eco­nomic in­equity, racism and closed-mind­ed­ness threat­ened to shred the na­tion’s demo­cratic fab­ric.

“We weaken those ties when we de­fine some of us as more Amer­i­can than oth­ers,” Mr. Obama said, “when we write off the whole sys­tem as in­evitably cor­rupt, and when we sit back and blame the lead­ers we elect with­out ex­am­in­ing our own role in elect­ing them.”

Speak­ing to a rap­tur­ous crowd that re­called the ex­cite­ment of his path-break­ing cam­paign in 2008, Mr. Obama said he be­lieved even the deep­est ide­o­log­i­cal di­vides could be bridged. His words were nev­er­the­less etched with frus­tra­tion — a blunt coda to a re­mark­able day that laid bare many of the racial cross­cur­rents in the coun­try.

On Capi­tol Hill, Sen­a­tor Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama pre­sented him­self as a moder­ate in his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for at­tor­ney gen­eral, while his crit­ics de­nounced him as a racist. In Charleston, S.C., Dy­lann S. Roof, the white su­prem­a­cist who shot nine black church­go­ers, was sen­tenced to death.

In the cav­ernous Chicago con­ven­tion hall where Mr. Obama cel­e­brated his re­elec­tion in 2012, the na­tion’s first black pres­i­dent — still pop­u­lar, still op­ti­mistic — bade Amer­ica good­bye 10 days be­fore turn­ing over his of­fice to Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald J. Trump, who ran what his crit­ics la­beled a racist cam­paign.

Mr. Obama pledged again to sup­port his suc­ces­sor. But his speech was a thinly veiled re­buke of sev­eral of the po­si­tions Mr. Trump staked out dur­ing the cam­paign, from cli­mate change and bar­ring Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the coun­try to re­peal­ing his land­mark health care law.

“If ev­ery eco­nomic is­sue is framed as a strug­gle be­tween a hard­work­ing white mid­dle class and un­de­serv­ing mi­nori­ties,” Mr. Obama said, “then work­ers of all shades will be left fight­ing for scraps while the wealthy with­draw fur­ther into their pri­vate en­clave.”

“If we de­cline to in­vest in the chil­dren of im­mi­grants, just be­cause they don’t look like us, we di­min­ish the prospects of our own chil­dren — be­cause those brown kids will rep­re­sent a larger share of Amer­ica’s work force,” he added.

In giv­ing a farewell ad­dress, Mr. Obama in­voked a priv­i­lege of pres­i­dents go­ing back to Ge­orge Washington. He staked his claim as the leader who steered the na­tion through the storms of the Great Re­ces­sion to a grow­ing econ­omy and job mar­ket. He claimed credit for re­duc­ing the rate of unin­sured Amer­i­cans to record lows, while keeping a cap on health care costs.

In a pointed ref­er­ence to Repub­li­cans de­ter­mined to re­peal the health care bill that was one of the sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ments of his pres­i­dency, Mr. Obama said, “If any­one can put to­gether a plan that is demon­stra­bly bet­ter than the im­prove­ments we’ve made to our health care sys­tem — that cov­ers as many peo­ple at less cost — I will pub­licly sup­port it.”

There were nos­tal­gic mo­ments, as well. He re­called the 2008 cam­paign that started him on his im­prob­a­ble jour­ney to the White House. He thanked the army of vol­un­teers and staff mem­bers who swept him into the Oval Of­fice, end­ing with the iconic chant, “Yes, we can.” And re­flect­ing on all they had ac­com­plished, he added, “Yes, we did.”

“It has been the honor of my life to serve you,” Mr. Obama said. “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a cit­i­zen, for all my re­main­ing days.”

He drew some of the most thun­der­ous ap­plause of the night when he paid tribute to his wife, Michelle — “my best friend” — and Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den Jr. — “a brother.” As the crowd of 18,000 clapped and stamped their feet, Mr. Obama dabbed his eyes.

After­ward, Mrs. Obama and her el­der daugh­ter, Malia, ap­peared on­stage with the pres­i­dent, along with Mr. Bi­den and his wife, Jill. The Oba­mas’ younger daugh­ter, Sasha, stayed in Washington be­cause she had an exam in school on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the White House said.

But Mr. Obama clearly wanted to use his last ma­jor turn on the na­tional stage to send a mes­sage. Amer­i­cans, he said, should not take their democ­racy for granted. Lament­ing the peren­ni­ally low voter turnout rates, Mr. Obama urged peo­ple to be­come in­volved. “If you’re tired of ar­gu­ing with strangers on the in­ter­net,” he said, “try to talk with one in real life.”

“Amer­ica is not a frag­ile thing,” the pres­i­dent said. “But the gains of our long jour­ney to free­dom are not as­sured.”

The White House had metic­u­lously planned this event, from the lo­ca­tion to the tone and ca­dence of the speech, which clearly reached for the or­a­tor­i­cal heights of his be­stremem­bered ad­dresses.

The pres­i­dent was still rewrit­ing his re­marks on Tues­day af­ter­noon, one of his aides said, af­ter be­ing up very late Mon­day night scrawl­ing ed­its on what was then al­ready the fourth draft.

Mr. Obama’s chief speech­writer, Cody Keenan, pored over pre­vi­ous farewell ad­dresses for in­spi­ra­tion. Ge­orge Washington used the oc­ca­sion to dis­close he would not run for a third term and warned Amer­i­cans to steer clear of for­eign en­tan­gle­ments in Europe, while Dwight D. Eisen­hower warned of the in­flu­ence of the “mil­i­taryin­dus­trial com­plex.”

Mr. Obama’s mes­sage re­called his fi­nal State of the Union ad­dress last year, as well as speeches he gave in Spring­field, Ill.; at the com­mence­ment cer­e­monies at Howard Univer­sity and Rut­gers Univer­sity; and dur­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

Dozens of alumni from the White House and Mr. Obama’s po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tion con­verged on Chicago to cheer their boss. With par­ties all over town, the at­mos­phere felt like a wist­ful ver­sion of 2012, or even more so, of 2008, when Mr. Obama’s elec­tion drew a quar­ter-mil­lion peo­ple to a ju­bi­lant vic­tory cel­e­bra­tion in nearby Grant Park.

There was, how­ever, an un­de­ni­able tinge of sad­ness to Mr. Obama’s leave-tak­ing — the dread among many in the crowd that his legacy will be un­done by Mr. Trump, and the dis­ap­point­ment that, for all his po­lit­i­cal gifts, he was un­able to hand over his of­fice to his cho­sen suc­ces­sor, Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“Beers and tears,” said Ben LaBolt who served as the na­tional press sec­re­tary for Mr. Obama’s re-elec­tion cam­paign.

Many said they had waited hours in the cold to get tick­ets, like Ja-mese McGee, an ele­men­tary school teacher from the Chicago sub­urb Coun­try Club Hills.

Those hours had a pur­pose. She wanted to demon­strate to her stu­dents that see­ing Mr. Obama was worth the wait. “Bet­ter than wait­ing to shop on Black Fri­day. Bet­ter than wait­ing in line for gym shoes,” she said.

But Ms. McGee was trou­bled by Mr. Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, and the dam­age it could do to Mr. Obama’s legacy. “There’s so much to say about him,” she said. “He main­tained class, he main­tained dig­nity. Hon­estly, I don’t want him to leave, but I’m sure it will be a load off his shoul­ders.”

Alvin Love, a Bap­tist min­is­ter, walked through the crowd hold­ing the hand of his 6-year-old grand­daugh­ter, Bayleigh Love, who wore a red se­quined party dress.

He and Mr. Obama go back 30 years, when the pres­i­dent was a young com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer on the South Side. “It’s mixed emo­tions for me,” he said. “I’m sad to see it come to an end, but proud and happy to see the work that he’s done.”

Mr. Love said he be­lieved Mr. Obama’s work could be sus­tained, even with the ad­vent of a Trump pres­i­dency. “Any time right is done, it will sooner or later stand up again.”

In his Chicago farewell, out­go­ing US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama warned of the po­ten­tial break­down in the na­tion’s demo­cratic fab­ric in the wake of what he called a toxic pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

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