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Obama says his goodbye with a plea for Americans to stay committed to democracy

Michael A. Memoli and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- President Barack Obama marked the end of his presidency Tuesday with the same message of hope that launched him into the White House, challenging Americans during a prime-time farewell address to renew their commitment to democratic values and persist in their optimism for change.

From his hometown of Chicago, the city where he said he found purpose in public life, Obama reflected on his transition from the nation's most powerful office to one he has said is just as vital: citizen.

Though Americans have largely grown more cynical about politics during his time in office, Obama said, he nonetheless continued to insist that change results when "ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it."

"After eight years as your president, I still believe that," he said. "And it's not just my belief. It's the beating heart of our American idea -- our bold experiment in self-government."

Obama's decision to deliver his final major national address from his adopted hometown instead of the White House was one of several flourishes on a tradition of goodbyes that have produced some of the most memorable speeches in presidential history, including Washington's Farewell Address and Eisenhower's dark warning of the military-industrial complex.

Tuesday's address was orchestrated as a celebration. Obama spoke in a large convention hall a few blocks from Grant Park, where he spoke to supporters on the night of his historic election in 2008. Chicago-area native Eddie Vedder warmed up the crowd by leading the Chicago Children's Choir in "People Have the Power." Obama supporters and former aides fanned out across the hall, and as Obama made his way to the arena, organizers started up the campaign refrain, "Fired up! Ready to go!"

The speech also reflected the unique situation Obama will confront as he leaves office. At just 55, he is preparing for an active post-presidency in which he will champion many of the same core issues he worked on in the White House, including minority rights and opportunities for young people. And, with an approval rating hovering just below 60 percent in many public surveys, he remains one of the nation's most popular political figures.

Obama's remarks touched only marginally on his record. He touted the end of the Great Recession and other economic gains, foreign policy achievements such as restoring diplomatic ties to Cuba and a breakthrough with Iran to stall its nuclear program, as well as marriage equality in the U.S. and the expansion of access to health care for 20 million Americans who had been uninsured.

But he said those achievements were not his alone.

"You were the change. You answered people's hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started," he said.

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