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Farewell Speech Highlights White House Wins Over The Last 8 Years


President Obama has taken what's likely to be his last flight aboard Air Force One. The plane carried him back to Washington, D.C. last night after a televised address to the nation from his hometown of Chicago. It was a sweeping look back at his eight years in office, an account of what Obama considers his biggest achievements and a warning about the future. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's good to be home.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama chose to mark the end of his time in office in the place where he got his start 30 years ago, working as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. It's where, he says, he learned change is possible when ordinary people demand it. And he says that lesson stayed with him through eight years in the White House.


OBAMA: Because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

HORSLEY: Obama said he wanted to say thank you to the American people for bouncing back from the Great Recession and extending health care to 20 million people. Many of the 18,000 who came to watch the speech in person wanted to say thank you to him.

SHARON BETHEA: This is epic. I was at the park when he won. I was at his inauguration, his first inauguration, so only be fitting that I come and listen to his farewell speech.

HORSLEY: Sharon Bethea lives on Chicago's South Side. She waited hours in the cold over the weekend to get tickets to the speech.

BETHEA: I'm going to miss that family so much. I'm going to miss looking at the presidency and seeing somebody that looks like me, a beautiful American family that looks like me.

HORSLEY: Obama himself got a little misty-eyed talking about his wife Michelle last night, how she'd inspired a new generation and made the White House a place that belongs to everybody.


OBAMA: You took on a role you didn't ask for, and you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style and good humor.


HORSLEY: The atmosphere surrounding the speech had the feel of a family reunion, as former staffers and campaign volunteers hugged one another and traded selfies. But the mood was also bittersweet for supporters like Alison Jackson. She traveled from Massachusetts to see the president in person for the first time. Jackson is apprehensive about the man who's taking Obama's place.

ALISON JACKSON: I keep asking myself, what can we possibly do over the next four years? And I finally decided that we just have to start at the very grass roots and hope that it catches on and the hope that Obama brought us in 2008 will somehow manage to resurface again.

HORSLEY: Obama conceded for many of his supporters progress feels uneven, that for every two steps forward, it often feels like one step back. Over the long run, he argued, the country is moving in a positive direction, but he cautioned there's work to do to rebuild America's sense of common purpose.


OBAMA: Democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity.

HORSLEY: Obama says that solidarity's been challenged at times, most recently by rising income inequality, demographic change and the specter of terrorism. America's first black president also pointed to age-old racial divisions that may have eased in recent decades, but which are not entirely healed.


OBAMA: If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.

HORSLEY: Ultimately, Obama's farewell speech was a challenge to his followers. If something needs fixing, he said, lace up your shoes and do some organizing - show up, dive in, stay at it.


OBAMA: If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.

HORSLEY: Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you'll lose, Obama said, but he argues the work itself is energizing. And he said his own faith in America and its people has been confirmed by eight years in the White House that are now drawing to a close. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.