The Current

Before Obama's farewell address, a look back at his most memorable speeches

As Obama prepares for his last address as president, we look back at his landmark speeches and consider how he may use this final address to define and protect his legacy.
President Barack Obama seconds after dropping his mic at the end of his White House Correspondents' dinner address last year. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

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President Barack Obama will bid adieu to his presidency with a farewell speech Tuesday night in the city where he began his political career — Chicago.

And while it's tradition for outgoing presidents to make a farewell speech, the stakes are especially high for this one given that president-elect Donald Trump has vowed to undo as much of Obama's legacy as possible.

Ray Long is a reporter with the Chicago Tribune who has been covering Obama since his early days as a state senator in Illinois. He says anticipation in the city is sky-high. People lined up at 5 a.m. local time for a chance to get tickets when they were made available last week. They disappeared within hours.

"He belongs to Chicago," Long says. "The people of Chicago believe [Obama] is one of theirs."

Daryl Carter, who teaches history at East Tennessee State University, says he expects Obama to be very measured in his speech.

"It'll be inclusive. It'll be about hope. It'll be a stark warning about the politics of resentment, and the dangers of isolation," says Carter, who is also the author of Brother Bill: President Clinton and the Politics of Race and Class.

Presidents typically use farewell speeches to sum up their presidency, referring back to the principles and accomplishments of their terms in power, says David Kusnet. He was the chief speech writer for former president Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign, and the first two years of Clinton administration.

I expect that President Obama will speak to the importance of his health-care reform, and turning the country's diversity into a source of strength.- David Kusnet

Carter says two of Obama's most powerful speeches were in his first year in office: when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and another speech he gave in Cairo.

"He put out a vision that was not just about peace, but the appropriate use of force," Carter says of the Nobel prize speech. He found the message striking, given that Obama had just won the prize largely on the expectation that he would be markedly different than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"I think it showed the country and the world that this president was going to be more measured in terms of how he used force, that he was going to use diplomacy as an effective avenue of American power, and that he was not the stereotypical Democrat … that he did believe the force was sometimes necessary in pursuing American aims."

Michelle Obama's final speech

5 years ago
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In her last speech from the White House today, Michelle Obama encouraged young people to work hard and get a good education 0:35

Long says Obama has grown remarkably over the years as a public speaker.

"You saw early flares of his great ability to have oratorical soaring moments early on in his career [as a state senator] but you didn't see the bigger picture as he exhibits now. "

Carter says Obama's approach to public speaking — and governing — will be a stark contrast to Donald Trump's style.

"I think we're going to miss that measured approach, that rational approach to public policy over the next four years."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by Sujata Berry, Samira Mohyeddin and Idella Sturino. 

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