USA Politics First Look

What will Obama's farewell speech look like? (+video)

President Obama will return to Chicago for his farewell speech Tuesday night. Aides say the address will be a 'call to action.' 

President Obama waves as he leaves the White House in Washington on Jan. 7, 2017. Obama will return Jan. 10 to the city that launched his unlikely political career to deliver one final speech as president: a parting plea to Americans not to lose faith in their future, no matter what they think about their next president.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
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On Tuesday evening, President Obama will return to Chicago to deliver his final presidential address from the city where his political career first began.

The address will be a "call to action," aides say, rather than a "victory lap." It will be a "serious speech" rather than a "rally," delivered to a sitting audience rather than a standing one. And it will take place at McCormick Place in the Windy City, rather than in Washington, D.C., drawing a connection between the president's time as a community organizer and his career in the White House. 

"His intention is to motivate people to want to get involved and fight for their democracy," senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told reporters on Monday, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. "The major focus on the speech isn't going to be reflecting back on how far we've come over the last eight years, but really looking forward and how we take the accomplishments, many (of which) through the hard work and grit of the American people came to fruition, and build on that going forward." 

Historically, presidential farewell speeches, while varied in content and details depending on the president and the political moment, contain many of the same themes, observers say. All presidents reflect on their time in office, with mention of both accomplishments and regrets. Many final speeches, including that of George Washington, include wise words and warnings. And, since the presidential farewell address became a fixture in the 20th century alongside the rise of television, most modern presidents have spoken of the difficulty of the job and urged Americans to have compassion for their successors.

Ten days before Donald Trump takes office, the tone of Obama's farewell address alone is sure to evoke comparisons to the rowdy victory rallies of the president-elect. The speech itself will contain the usual mix of reflection and advice for the future, aides say, with an emphasis on the importance of Americans of all walks of life coming together in a time of extreme political polarization. 

"It's partly why he wanted to go back to Chicago to give the speech, because this is a place where working on the South Side of Chicago and the neighborhoods ... in the shadows of the abandoned steel mills, as a community organizer with people who had been knocked out of jobs that theretofore had been real paths to the middle class, that he recognized that he had a gift for organizing," Denis McDonough, the president's chief of staff, told CBS News' Charlie Rose on Monday.

"He had a gift for getting people working together towards the same goal," Mr. McDonough continued. "And I think that's what you’ll hear a lot about from the president tomorrow, the importance of sticking together, working together, standing up for what you believe in, and then fighting like hell for it." 

Since President-elect Trump's election in November, the president and the president-elect have described their transition-period conversations as "cordial" and "nice." But the two have also traded public barbs. Trump has openly criticized Obama on Twitter, arguing that Obama misjudged the election and lost badly, and claiming that "inflammatory" statements by the president were disrupting a smooth transition. In December, Obama made what many saw as a thinly veiled reference to Trump's presidency during a historic speech alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Pearl Harbor, in which he cautioned against tribalism and isolationism. 

Oftentimes, presidents delivering farewell addresses are handing off the White House to a president-elect of a different party with different political beliefs, Gerhard Peters, co-director of the American Presidency Project, told NPR. 

Still, these presidents are typically "very graceful to their successor," he said. "And I'd expect President Obama to be, even though this has been a very political climate, this transition."