Obama expected to look ahead, not behind, in speech tonight
January 10, 2017 6:17 AM
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Critics, allies and dispassionate historians are dissecting President Barack Obama’s last 2,912 days. There was the expansion of health care, the bailing out of banks and car makers, the reliance on executive orders, and the failure to fix a broken immigration system.
But as the 44th president pens his own epilogue, he is focused on America’s future more than on his own past, aides said.
Tonight Mr. Obama delivers his presidential farewell — the traditional swan song of outgoing presidents looking to seal their legacies.
Top advisers say to expect to hear less about his accomplishments than his hopes for the future. To be clear, the speech will be about the future of America, not the future of Donald Trump’s presidency, advisers said.
“I don’t think the speech is about President Trump. It’s about the American people and their responsibilities as citizens … and their ability to be agents of change,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said. “Hope and change isn’t about one man; it’s about everyone.”
“It’s not a victory-lap speech. His intention is to motivate people to try to get involved and work for their democracy,” she said.
He will speak in Chicago, where he launched his 2008 presidential bid. Thousands will attend — including some who’ve paid scalpers thousands for tickets that the White House distributed for free — but it won’t be a rally.
“This is a large audience, but it’s a serious message,” said Jen Psaki, White House communications director. “It’s about the American people and how — as he’s going into a new phase of his life — it will no longer be his voice on the forefront of every debate and leading every change. It’s time for the voices of the people and our incoming leaders to really take over.”
The speech will be against a backdrop of Republican promises to quickly undo the president’s executive orders along with key parts of his signature domestic policy achievement: the Affordable Care Act.
Ms. Jarrett said it’s easier for Republicans to make those promises during politically charged speeches than to fulfill them, and there’s still a lot of momentum on initiatives the public is invested in, including Obamacare.
“When you talk about taking something away, it’s much more complicated than it may seem. The politics of ‘no’ is very easy when you’re not in office. It’s harder when you are,” she said. “Now they have control, and so when you start taking things away from the American people, the responsibility will rest with them.”
The administration has still made progress, even if Republicans chip away at it, aides said.
“Our democracy has never been easy, and we take a few steps forward and then there will be zigs and zags along the way. I think what [he’ll do in the speech] is provide some historical context for how hard it is to change.”
Mr. Obama hinted at that theme himself on Saturday during his weekly radio address.
“America is a story told over a longer time horizon, in fits and starts, punctuated at times by hardship, but ultimately written by generations of citizens who’ve somehow worked together, without fanfare, to form a more perfect union,” he said Saturday. “We’ve run a leg in our long journey of progress, knowing that our work is and will always be unfinished.”
The best hope for Mr. Obama to preserve his legacy lies with up-and-coming political leaders.
That’s why post-White House, he will keep working to inspire future officeholders along with everyday Americans who can make a difference through small acts, aides said.
“This isn’t about the president anointing the next generation of leaders; it’s about him trying to create an environment where he can encourage them to step up. But they have to earn it, just as he had to earn it,” Ms. Jarrett said.
He will work to “lift up and mentor the next generation,” Ms. Psaki said.
Mr. Obama also is expected to take on an advocacy role after leaving the White House, but it will be limited to issues he feels most strongly about, Ms. Psaki said. Those include voting rights and My Brothers Keeper, a program to help men and boys of color through mentoring, providing job opportunities, reducing violence, supporting scholarship and more.
The speech is scheduled for 9 tonight at McCormick Place in Chicago. To watch online: www.WhiteHouse.gov/live.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292, @pgPoliTweets.
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