CHICAGO — Children escorted their grandmothers, high school and college students bunched together, and Obama campaign veterans reunited as a magnificent sea of humanity rolled into McCormick Place to hear President Barack Obama deliver his farewell address.
A crowd estimated between 18,000-20,000 packed the concrete cavern, where auto shows are held. Some ticket holders lined up 12 hours before the speech to get a spot near the stage and a chance to see this city’s favorite son for the last time as president.
“His legacy is social change,” said Nancy Bramson, a volunteer for the farewell event. “Gay rights, African American and minority rights, DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] are all important progressive changes he ushered in.”
If one could dissect the atmosphere into its component parts, one might find the atmosphere one-third melancholy to see Obama leave office, one-third celebratory about the progress made, and one-third apprehensive about the future. People were sad to see the nation’s first black president leave office. Many in the crowd sported “Best President Ever” buttons.
Some said they will miss Obama’s thoughtful, intelligent and honest approach to politics and life. Others reflected on his substantial legacy and the many social gains made during these last eight years. Most agreed that the country faces rough and tough times ahead with Donald Trump as president.
But many said they weren’t standing idly by in that regard. Some were busily engaged in urging others to call their senators to oppose the appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
Before the speech began, Bramson, the event volunteer, said she anticipated that the president would go over his achievements, be humble for what he couldn’t do, and show his gratitude with his usual inspiration, eloquence and elegance.
Obama’s farewell speech did that and more. The crowd – a microcosm of America in its spectrum of colors, ages, shapes, sizes and beliefs – gave him a rousing ovation that lasted for more than two minutes, refusing to be quiet even as the president signaled he wanted to begin.
As the president started to trace his beginnings in grassroots politics in Chicago, chants of “four more years” rose up through the crowd.
“I can’t do that,” he said.
The president narrated his progressive view of American democracy, providing an alternative to the far-right’s talking points about the country’s founding. Calling it a “radical idea,” he cited the “great gift” of self-government, which makes possible “that we, the people, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.”
But the long shadow of Trump and Republican control of all three branches of government loomed large. After reviewing major accomplishments of his eight years, Obama pivoted to the present threats to democracy.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
He outlined three challenges that “threatened to rupture that solidarity” and democracy: income inequality, racism and sectarian politics. Obama skillfully wove his vision into each area, suggesting how to find common ground and move forward.
Listeners sensed that his most lasting legacy would be the actions of those people who engage in the struggle for the “more perfect union” and an expanding definition of democracy. Obama urged, now more than ever: “All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.”
Forever a community organizer, Obama also urged the audience to run for office.
“If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it,” he said.
Tiffany Moten, a volunteer with the Chicago Urban League, said her grandparents weren’t allowed to vote until they were in their thirties and their grandparents were slaves, so electing the nation’s first African American president held profound and enduring significance for her and her family.
“President Obama represented the future for me,” she said. “It’s amazing that [my grandparents] could witness having a black president. I think that’s special for them and for me to be able to see that. That alone will be his legacy and that alone is enough.”
But Obama also did more, giving minorities, women and America in general a sense of hope, she said. “No matter where we go when he leaves, we can always hold on to the fact that he inspired so many of us for so long.”
Jasmin Cervantes, who graduated last year from DePaul University, said she first saw Obama speak at a march for immigrant rights when she was in sixth grade. “It was one of those moments when I wanted to get involved in politics.” She said she felt hope seeing “someone who is not in the majority.”
Cervantes said, “I think his legacy will be change. It’s been consistent with breaking down barriers. It’s a mixture between change and hope.”
Cervantes and Moten are both of the generation dubbed “Millennial.” They and Bramson represent the legacy the president referred to when he said, “You were the change.”
“That’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans – especially so many young people out there – to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves,” he said.
“This generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands,” he said.
But after the speech, many in the crowd said they felt this would be the last time people would come together like this and feel uplifted, that, as Bob Dylan once sang, “A hard rain’s gonna fall.”
Impressed with the vast array of humanity at the speech, one young woman, walking home down Martin Luther King Drive said, “I’ve never seen a crowd so mixed. There were all kinds of people there.” To which her friend replied, “Yeah, we won’t see a crowd like that for a long time.”