USA Politics First Look

The best lines from Obama's emotional farewell speech

The outgoing president quoted Atticus Finch and highlighted accomplishments such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, health-care reform, and foreign policy work with Iran and Cuba. 

President Obama delivers his farewell address in Chicago, on Jan. 10, 2017. Picture taken January 10, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters | Caption

President Obama bid farewell to the nation on Tuesday night in a wide-ranging speech that urged Americans not to abandon a sense of unified purpose and defended many of his presidency’s accomplishments.

The speech broke with tradition in at least one significant way, the venue: Mr. Obama spoke not from the nation’s capital but in Chicago, the cradle of his political career and the hometown of first lady Michelle Obama. His address was frequently bittersweet, coming in the shadow of president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to reverse many of Obama’s key policies and initiatives.

During election season, the president warned in dark terms of a Trump presidency. Now, he sought to portray the outcome in calming terms, calling for Americans to get out of their social-media and social-circle "bubbles" and emphasizing a longer view of the nation’s path.

"I am asking you to believe," he said, according to transcripts. "Not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours."

"Yes, our progress has been uneven," he added. "The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody.  For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back."

But the United States, he said, has always strived for "forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some."

Quoting Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," he urged Americans to seek understanding of those with whom they disagree.

"If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,' " he said.

"If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the internet," he added, "try to talk with one in real life." 

Still, much of the speech consisted of rebuttals of the incoming president’s thoughts on such issues as race and justice, health care, climate change, and immigration.

Economic and racial inequality, as well as political partisanship that eroded a sense of a common purpose, posed the biggest threats to the country, Obama said.

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

Quoting President George Washington, Obama said that  "we should reject 'the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties' that make us one.

We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent.  We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

He also said: "After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society."

But younger and more diverse generations, Obama added, gave him hope that historic racial divides could be healed with time. And he called for citizen activism as a remedy to policies that weaken what he described as traditional American values, encouraging citizens to "grab a clipboard, get some signatures" and run for office.

"Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes you'll win. Sometimes you'll lose," he said.

"Yes we can," Obama said, echoing his original presidential campaign that centered on hope. "Yes we did."

His final message carried that hope forward with the anticipation of the work that future, creative, compassionate generations would do. 

"You'll soon outnumber any of us," Obama said, "and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands." 

The Chicago Tribune, among other media outlets, posted a full transcript of the speech.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.