Obama defends legacy in powerful farewell speech, paints optimistic vision for US despite challenges

US President Barack Obama gestures during his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois on Jan 10, 2017.
US President Barack Obama gestures during his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois on Jan 10, 2017.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON - Outgoing US President Barack Obama sought to cement his legacy in a characteristically powerful farewell speech at a lakefront convention centre in his hometown Chicago, listing a string of achievements during his eight years in office.

 In the soaring speech before some 14,000 people, which left many in tears with emotional references to his wife, daughters and Vice-President Joe Biden, Mr Obama called for unity, invoking the spirit of America's founding fathers, and the pioneering spirit of generations of immigrants.

 He also delivered a carefully reasoned warning of threats to America's democracy from internal divisiveness and inequality, and urged Americans to be more participative in the democratic process. 

But his overarching message was one of optimism and faith in Americans.

 Mr Obama's popularity ratings are higher than that of his successor, billionaire real estate tycoon and celebrity TV star Donald Trump, who will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States next Friday (Jan 20).

 
 
 

Still, he has had to defend his policies - like the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare - many of which are expected to come under assault by the next administration.

 "He understands he is fighting for his legacy'' Professor Glenn Altschuler of Cornell University told The Straits Times in a telephone interview.

 "President Obama knows that in the next years there will be a concerted effort to roll back his achievements in almost every area, and he is both trying to prevent that from happening and also drawing a contrast with his successor in a way that is implied but very clear.''

 "His speech was optimistic at a time when people are apprehensive,'' the professor said.

 Ahead of the speech, White House spokesman Jen Psaki said it would be a "passing of the baton" to a new generation of leaders.   Ms Psaki and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett were briefing reporters at the White House.

Ms Jarrett said "his intention is to motivate people to want to get involved and fight for their democracy.''

In an interview published on Monday in USA Today, Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway said of Mr Obama's speech : "It's a great idea for him to do this because he knows that a great deal of what he did is not going to survive this next presidency, or maybe even this next month, in some cases."

 "You build a legacy not just by checking a box and passing legislation without a single vote from the other side. Legacies have to be sustained over time; they have to endure."

 American presidents do not normally stay politically active after their terms. In closing his speech, Mr Obama said it had been the honour of his life to serve Americans and he would not stop. "In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my days that remain" he said.

 But there was little indication that Mr Obama was contemplating remaining as a political force.

In his speech, he said "in 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy.'' And when a chorus of boos sounded, he cut it off, emphasising  "the peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected president to the next."