CHICAGO — President Obama planned to use his farewell speech here in his home town on Tuesday to defend his imperiled legacy and press a broad, optimistic vision for the country that has rarely seemed more divided than it does as he is about to leave office.
Obama has sought to rise above the rancorous politics of the past few months and the stunning presidential election that resulted in the defeat of his chosen successor and a Republican sweep of Congress.
Obama has referred to his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood here as “a time capsule,” a mostly uninhabited place full of old bills and news clippings dating to a time before he took office.
And on Tuesday, he returned to his home town to lay down a critical mile marker of his presidency, seeking to address both the past and the future.
The last months of his presidency have tested his confidence and optimism in ways that he never expected. First, there was a violent summer of police shootings and protests that highlighted the country’s deep divisions and the limits of any single president to speak to a fractious and frustrated nation.
During two successful runs for the White House, Obama had rallied his base with the chant “Yes, we can.”
By last summer, he was asking a different question: “Can we do this? Can we find the character as Americans to open our hearts to each other?” he asked. “I don’t know. I confess that sometimes, I too experience doubt.” Then there was the stunning victory of President-elect Donald Trump, a candidate that Obama derided as unfit for the Oval Office.
In Chicago, Obama doubled down on his optimistic vision for the country and his faith in the American people, despite the acrimony and doubt of the past few months.
But Obama sought to make the case that the change he promised in 2008 is a reality that will continue to unfold despite the battering his party suffered in the November elections.
In the Woodlawn neighborhood, where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to open in 2021, residents said they hope that the center will provide a critical economic boost to the neighborhood. Tonya Hall, a home health-care aide, said big hopes were riding on small signs. “We saw them cutting down all the trees,” she said, a concrete sign in her mind that the library will be a helpful reality.
“I think it will be jobs,” said 77-year-old Almeda Nelson on Monday, as she ran errands across from the Good Shepherd Manor seniors’ home where she lives. She hopes the Obama library will help create opportunities for the neighborhood’s young people: “It will give them something to do. They don’t have nothing to do. They’re out in the street.”
Obama chose Chicago for his farewell address because of a “deep and profound love for the city,” said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
But the city also highlights some of the unfinished work of his presidency. Racked by gun violence, armed confrontations between police and civilians, and fights between city officials and the teachers’ union, Chicago is held up by conservatives as a national symbol of urban dysfunction. The city had 762 homicides last year, the highest number since the crack epidemic of the 1990s.
“We are experiencing, obviously, a serious murder and crime problem,” said Dick Simpson, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But Simpson, who served as a city alderman from 1971 to 1979, noted that Chicago “has become more established as a global city,” and the Obama center will reflect that growing sophistication.
In an interview Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted that the number of tourists visiting his city each year has risen from 39 million when he took office in 2011 to 54 million in 2016. Given Chicago’s easy accessibility and the draw of the presidential center, Emanuel said, “his library will be a major part of the cultural attraction of Chicago.”
While Emanuel acknowledged that Chicago had a difficult past year, he added that many other major cities faced similar challenges. Obama, he said, was committed to helping tackling some of them during his post-presidency.
“These are complex problems that require comprehensive solutions,” Emanuel said.
Even as many welcome the prospect of new development on the city’s South Side, there is also a tangible unease that the area’s redevelopment could crowd out existing residents.
The Rev. Byron T. Brazier, who serves as pastor of Apostolic Church of God, said construction of the center will provide both Woodlawn and nearby Washington Park with greater leverage over future economic decisions. Both communities are on the upswing, he said, with strong schools and a declining murder rate.
A decade ago, Obama’s rapid ascent appeared to galvanize a new political coalition — composed of young people, people of color and women — that promised to scramble established voting patterns and usher in an era of federal progressive policymaking.
On Tuesday, many of the Obama true believers gathered to hear him one last time.
Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean, a Sacramento native who directed research at the White House as well as during the 2012 campaign, is now works in the tech industry in Northern California. On Monday, she boarded a plane for Chicago to meet up with other veterans of the Obama campaigns.
“I’m looking forward to hearing from him,” she said. “He’s always been sort of the North Star. So the question is what does that navigation tell us, what does the compass look like.”
The White House put out a video over the weekend, featuring celebrities and ordinary people recounting what the 2008 campaign slogan — “yes we can” — meant to them.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley has dubbed Obama “a firewall president, who must constantly defend progressive achievement in a country that’s center-right.” The result is that Obama may find himself more tightly tethered to the political stage than he had envisioned he would be at this point.
“He’s going to keep his political hat on for a little longer than he wants to,” Brinkley said, even though “he might want to throw it in the closet.”
And Obama has begun to think through when he might publicly weigh in on what his successor is doing, Jarrett said, even as he will work to be respectful of the fact that a new president will be in charge. - The Washington Post