WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama, delivering a farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday night, reaffirmed his belief that change only happens when “ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it.”

Addressing thousands of cheering supporters at McCormick Place in Chicago, the city where he gave his presidential victory speech in 2008, the outgoing president said change was the “beating heart of our American idea - our bold experiment in self-government.”

Capping eight years in the White House, Obama returned to his adopted hometown of Chicago to recast his “yes we can” campaign credo as “yes we did.”

Wiping a tear from his eye, Obama paid a poignant tribute to his own family, his daughter Malia who was present and Sasha who stayed in Washington because of an exam, and the first lady who he addressed as his best friend. “You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor,” he said. “A new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You’ve made me proud. You’ve made the country proud.”

Obama, who cultivated his empowering brand of American politics in Chicago, said the city had taught him that change starts at the grassroots level.

The president warned supporters of the challenges facing the post-World War II order, namely the threat of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) jihadi group and the challenges facing democracy.

“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” Obama said. “So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”  Obama, in an interview aired on Israeli television on Tuesday, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy backing settlements in occupied territory is making a future Palestinian state impossible.

“Bibi says that he believes in the two-state solution and yet his actions consistently have shown that if he is getting pressured to approve more settlements he will do so regardless of what he says about the importance of the two-state solution,” Obama said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

 

He made no mention of Republican Donald Trump, who will replace him in just 10 days. But when he noted the imminence of that change and the crowd began booing, he responded, “No, no, no, no, no.” One of the nation’s great strengths, he said, “is the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next.”

But it was hard not to see in Obama’s parting words a repudiation of a Trump era that has already begun.

“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,” he said.

Obama lauded the contributions of immigrants and Muslim-Americans and denounced “naked partisanship,” income inequality and a splintering media. And he exhorted Americans not to “retreat into our own bubbles” of neighbourhoods or churches or even social media feeds.

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there,” he said. The “selective sorting of the facts” was self-defeating, he said, “because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”

He singled out climate change as an example. “We can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders,” he said.

Obama’s farewell covered the gamut of administration accomplishments, from the motor cars bailout to the Affordable Care Act to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But like George Washington, whose farewell address Obama quoted from, Obama warned against internal divisions.”After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic,” he said. “For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago - you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.”

Obama consciously chose Chicago as the venue for the speech, departing from a modern tradition that has mostly used the Oval Office as the set for a televised address.

“I first came to Chicago when I was in my early twenties, still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life,” he said. “It was in neighbourhoods not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss. This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.

“After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea - our bold experiment in self-government.”Early on, the speech was interrupted by cheers and shouting. “Four more years!”

“I can’t do that,” Obama said. “In ten days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected president to the next,” he said, to a smattering of boos.

On the way to Chicago, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One that Obama is “not one to be overly sentimental,” but it would be unrealistic for anyone in his position tonight not to feel some nostalgia

But Obama teared up when he addressed first lady Michelle Obama. “You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humour,” he said. “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You’ve made me proud. You’ve made the country proud.”