Obama's farewell: 'I still believe'

President Obama delivers his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago on Tuesday.

CHICAGO - President 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, Obama said, he 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."

Obama's decision to deliver his final major national address from his adopted hometown 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.

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.

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.

Instead, his focus was his optimism about civic engagement going forward after a bitter campaign to replace him and lingering concern about how President-elect Donald Trump will handle foreign relations, national security, the economy, and other big-ticket issues.

He warned of further threats to American unity. Indeed, the audience booed when he spoke of the peaceful transition of power set to take place next week. He called for a new social compact to creating opportunity for all, or else "the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen."

And the nation's first black president reflected on racial tensions "as old as our nation itself," calling for greater understanding and acceptance of the increasingly diverse nation.

He also offered warm personal notes, telling his wife, Michelle: "A new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model."

To daughters Malia and Sasha, he said: "Under the strangest of circumstances you have become two amazing young women."

And to Vice President Biden, he said: "The scrappy kid from Scranton. . . . You were the first decision I made as a nominee, and it was the best."

Senior advisers say Obama knows that many progressives, religious and ethnic minorities, and immigrants are feeling apprehensive with the approach of the handover to Trump, who was elected after promising to crack down on immigration, scrutinize Muslims in the U.S., and challenge what he termed political correctness.

After he leaves office, he plans to take time to "quiet" himself and contemplate the last eight years, said Valerie Jarrett, a longtime adviser and family friend.

He wants to give Trump "room to do his homework," Jarrett said.

At the same time, Obama is aware that he can command attention when the moment is right. And if some development troubles him, he may speak out, he has said. For now, he hopes to leave a message of hope as he walks off the world stage.

It's time for the "passing of the baton," said Jen Psaki, the White House communications director.

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