U.S. President Barack Obama, center, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Obama Farewell to Nation Draws Not-So-Subtle Contrast With Trump

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  • (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama blasted "zero-sum" politics as he drew a sharp contrast with his successor in his farewell address Tuesday night, acknowledging that despite his historic election eight years ago his vision for the country will exit the White House with him.

    Obama’s prime-time address was a call for political engagement after a grueling election won by Republican Donald Trump, who made undoing Obama’s achievements the centerpiece of his campaign. The president made an appeal for the American people to embrace inclusiveness and to preserve his legacy before his successor is inaugurated Jan. 20.

    "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," Obama said. "If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce. "

    The transition to Trump’s presidency loomed large over the address, and one senior administration official familiar with the speech-drafting said that Obama recognizes the conflicting emotions within the nation’s electorate. Obama and his aides are also aware that many supporters gathered in Chicago are dismayed that his election eight years ago served as the high-water mark for a Democratic Party that has been electorally ravaged at every level of government since, and now finds itself in the wilderness.

    Unspoken Contrast

    But Obama sought to present a vision of transcending politics, organized around the belief that his administration -- and the history of the country -- demonstrates the power of engagement between citizens and the government, according to the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the speech text before it was delivered.

    “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” Obama said. “All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.”

    The speech was one of the president’s last opportunities to make the case for policies, like the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street regulation, that Trump has vowed to repeal. Obama appealed to citizens to embrace tolerance, drawing an unspoken contrast with the president-elect, who has called for walling off the U.S. border with Mexico and ending the admission of refugees from war-torn Muslim countries.

    The president warned that a “fear of change” posed a risk greater than bombs or missiles to democracy. “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” Obama said, warning that combating external threats required vigilance against “a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”

    Among the loudest applause lines of the night was when the president said he rejected discrimination against Muslim Americans.

    Obama appeared to reference Russian president Vladimir Putin’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. elections, decrying “autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat” in the same breath as radical terrorists.

    After Office

    He teased at avenues he’s likely to pursue upon leaving office, including redistricting bids to moderate congressional districts and campaign finance efforts to limit the scope of money in politics. He also called for easing voting restrictions.

    “All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings,” Obama said.

    Work on the address began during Obama’s holiday vacation in Hawaii, with the president’s chief speech writer, Cody Keenan, working poolside to finish a draft he presented to the president on the flight home to Washington. Obama provided feedback through the early days of January, producing three additional drafts, but has lamented not being able to devote more time to the task, the person familiar with the process said.

    Obama is ramping up planning for his post-presidency, with every indication that he’s betting better political organization can help reverse the losses Democrats experienced under his leadership.

    He hired his White House political director, David Simas, as the chief executive officer of his foundation, a signal that he expects to remain connected to the Democratic policy and donor classes. His foundation has said that a training center for grassroots organizing will be part of his presidential library, and he also plans to partner with former Attorney General Eric Holder to promote an overhaul of congressional redistricting. Some administration officials may also join the president’s Chicago-based political committee, Organizing for Action, which grew out of his successful presidential campaigns.

    Ticket Demand

    Thousands of Chicagoans lined up in single-digit temperatures over the weekend in hopes of scoring tickets to the speech. A sizable contingent of current and former Obama staffers traveled to the city for the remarks. Some of Obama’s staffers have already been furloughed from the White House, and the Chicago address will be their final chance to see the president before he departs office on Jan. 20.

    On Friday night, the Obama and his wife, Michelle, hosted hundreds of friends and celebrities at the White House for a party that wound into the early morning hours. Attendees at the event included Jerry Seinfeld, Paul McCartney, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, and Stevie Wonder.

    Bloomberg