Obama’s last goodbye: Yes, we did, and yes, we still can

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So President Obama has given his last speech to the nation. And he’s left a hole in my heart.

We were lucky enough to get tickets to attend his farewell address. We were among those standing in line for hours to get into the huge convention center hall at Chicago’s McCormick Place where Obama would bid us all goodbye and remind us to live up to the country’s democratic ideals.

But he did something even more important: He challenged those in attendance and the 24 million watching on television not to let the accomplishments of his administration be the end of a movement, but a beginning.

That’s what we did. That’s what you did. 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.

The huge, multi-racial crowd at McCormick Place was made up of many campaign veterans from 2008 and 2012. Many carried American flags; one woman even had three adorning her updo. The place was awash with Obama shirts, hats, jackets, stickers, and pins. Many T-shirts proudly proclaimed that the wearer was with one of the many groups affiliated with the campaign: Teachers for Obama. Pennsylvanians for Obama. One woman held her infant daughter—who was obviously not around eight years ago—wearing a pink “My Mama’s for Obama” T-shirt, perhaps passed down from an older sibling, relative, or neighbor.

A woman I phone-banked with in 2008—she must have gotten there an hour or two ahead of us and was far ahead of me as the line snaked around four times the entire length of the convention hall floor—called my name and waved. Our older daughter, who worked on the 2008 campaign and (full disclosure here) has worked for the White House for six years, saw many campaign buddies and current and former co-workers. There was even an “OFAmily” party afterward for anyone who had ever worked on any of the campaigns.

Many had saved and were wearing Obama campaign buttons. Many wore buttons that proudly proclaimed, “I WAS THERE,” sending the message that they were among the million-plus crowd who braved the cold in January 2009 for the inauguration of the first black president. I remember seeing so many of those buttons on the lapels of Chicagoans’ down coats in 2009.

They were there then, and they were there for the farewell address. And now the Obama presidency is over, and the country is better off for it, even as many of us grimly anticipate what lies ahead.

This was the beginning of the line of the 20,000 or so people waiting to get into President Obama's farewell address. Some had lined up at early as 5 a.m. As police finally let them enter the security checkpoint, the crowd started chanting, "Yes, we can."

This was the beginning of the line of the 20,000 or so people waiting to get into President Obama’s farewell address. Some had lined up at early as 5 a.m. As police finally let them enter the security checkpoint, the crowd started chanting, “Yes, we can.”

You may have watched the speech on TV or read the transcript online. You actually got a better view of it than we did; we didn’t have the VIP tickets of those sitting in front of the stage. We stood off to the side in the huge crowd and watched on a giant screen. The sound quality was so-so in such a big hall, and Obama’s words often were drowned out by sustained applause and cheers. I had to read the speech online later to see all the words and watch clips to get the full emotional impact. If you missed the address for some reason, you can read the transcript here or watch it online:

Rather than repeat everything Obama said—that has been well covered by now—I want to share what we felt and what those feelings might mean going forward.

The crowd was diverse in race, age, and ethnicity. It came as no surprise that many African Americans wanted to see the farewell address from the nation’s first black president. But there were Latinos, Muslims (head scarves adorned many heads), and Asians as well. Somehow, I doubt you’d see the same mix at an event for Donald Trump.

The crowd also was primarily young. The majority were in their 20s and 30s—prime ages for campaign workers eight years ago and for current White House staffers. But others were high school students who were too young to vote or campaign in 2008. Why were they there? What made this speech so important?

“I just felt like I had to be here,” said one high school student near me in the crowd who was there with several classmates from Collins Academy High School in North Lawndale, a poor Chicago neighborhood with high crime rates. All were wearing sweatshirts that read, “MY BLOCK. MY HOOD. MY CITY” and are with a program that takes teens from various inner-city neighborhoods on day trips to expose them to other parts of the greater community, always ending with a service project by the kids themselves. Program founder Jahmal Cole and volunteers waited in line in single-digit temperatures the previous Saturday to pick up tickets for his group, but he struck out; the tickets were gone. After a public plea, many Chicagoans donated their tickets to the teenagers. “It would be like seeing Martin Luther King Jr. or John Kennedy speak. It’s history in the making,” Cole said in a story reporting the generosity of the city’s residents.

Many former campaign colleagues hugged each other and traded stories about what they were doing now, showing pictures of spouses and children on cell phones. One young man pushed his mother in a wheelchair so she could be present. She kept telling him how much she appreciated his taking time off work to bring her to the speech. “I don’t mind,” he told her. “I’m glad to share the experience.” When you’re in line for so many hours, there’s a lot you can share with those around you.

Chicago is rightly proud of its native son, even if Obama isn’t really a native and even if he ends up living elsewhere when the family leaves Washington in a few years after his sophomore daughter Sasha finishes high school. (During the speech, as the camera panned the family, many in the crowd wondered aloud why Sasha was missing. I mentioned to a guy next to me that she probably had a test the next morning, which turned out to be correct. But I did like the Twitter suggestions that she was part of a SEAL Team 6 group hunting for Trump’s tax returns.)

Obama got emotional toward the end of his address, thanking his White House staff, the military, Vice President Joe Biden, his daughters, and especially Michelle Obama. Many in the crowd wiped away tears along with the first family.

All that was bittersweet, as it was when he introduced what he called his “final point” about democracy being taken for granted. “NO!” the crowd shouted, not ready for him to leave the stage yet, not ready for anything final.

The image that really punched me in the gut was Obama walking off the stage. That’s when it really hit me: No more Obama. No more soaring rhetoric. No more speeches to soothe the nation after a mass shooting. No more mic-dropping humor at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. No more calling out Republicans in campaigns. No more outlining the country’s needed priorities during the State of the Union address. No more being the only adult in a room of political children. No more standing up for what’s right.

The speech demonstrated the stark difference between the outgoing and incoming presidents. Obama gave an emotional goodbye with grace and inspiration while Trump exploded in a childish tantrum both on Twitter and a train wreck of a news conference. Talk about going from class to crass, or from the sublime to slime. Even as much as we dread Trump coming into power, that’s made worse when we’re reminded of what we’re losing.

On a Chicago radio talk show the morning after the speech, one caller, after admitting to quite a few tears during the farewell address, said it “felt like your big brother and his family have moved out of the house.”

“You knew they wouldn’t stay forever,” she said. “But you hoped this day would never come.”

The day has come. But if Barack Obama inspired anyone in our audience—or those listening around the country—to “grab a clipboard, gather some signatures, and run for office yourself,” there’s hope. I know three people, never politically active before, who are now running for office on library and school boards. Obama ran on hope, and hope was his final message to us.

Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Jan. 16, 2017.

One Comment on “Obama’s last goodbye: Yes, we did, and yes, we still can

  1. I watched with a few others at the weekly Chicago Hack Night gathering at the Merchandise Mart. He took the high road, and remained aspirational, in his comments. I suspect in 30 years he may be remembered as the Jimmy Carter of this generation, having a greater impact on the world after the Presidency than during. I hope so.

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