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Politics & Government

Obama Returns To Chicago For Final Speech As President

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama says farewell tonight. He's preparing to deliver his last primetime speech to the American people before leaving the White House in 10 days, and he's doing it in the same place where he celebrated his election in 2008, his adopted hometown of Chicago.

NPR's Scott Horsley is there. He joins us now on the line. And Scott, tell us a little bit more about where this speech is going to take place tonight.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Audie, the president is addressing the country from McCormick Place. That's the giant convention center here in Chicago, and it's the same place he celebrated his successful re-election to the White House four years ago.

Now, I remember the night before that 2012 election when Obama held the last of his own campaign rallies in Des Moines, Iowa. And they made a poster for that rally that said, finish where we started, which was a nod to the Iowa caucuses four years earlier that had launched Obama's unlikely run of the presidency.

There's sort of a similar geographic nostalgia at work here tonight. That's why Obama wanted to give this speech in Chicago rather than Washington, as most outgoing presidents do. This is where he cut his teeth all those years ago as a community organizer.

And he said over the weekend, the thread running throughout his career is the notion that when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, they can change things for the better. I think you're going to hear echoes of that message tonight.

CORNISH: And are you sensing any excitement? What's the atmosphere in the city?

HORSLEY: I think there's a lot of excitement, Audie. Thousands of people here in Chicago lined up to get tickets to this speech, and a lot of people are coming in from out of town as well. I flew in this morning from D.C., and there were a lot of people on the airplane wearing their vintage Obama T-shirts. And when we landed, a lot of passengers broke into a fired-up, ready-to-go cheer.

One passenger on the plane who was not wearing a T-shirt was White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who's been at Obama's side from the get go. I asked McDonough why he wasn't flying on Air Force One, and he said he needed five seats because he was bringing his whole family along. So there is something of the air of a family reunion here.

But for a lot of Obama admirers, this moment is also bittersweet because, as you say, this is the president's farewell address. He is leaving the White House in a week and a half, and he's going to be replaced by someone with a very different vision and a very different agenda for the United States.

CORNISH: Right. All last year, you had the president warning about Trump's election, that it could jeopardize much of what Obama had accomplished as president. Now, since Trump has won, I think the president has been speaking in less dire tones, but do you expect him to essentially defend or talk a lot about his legacy tonight?

HORSLEY: Well, this is a president who is undoubtedly proud of what has been achieved over the last eight years, as he always says, by the hard work of the American people - rebounding from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, adding millions of jobs, extending health care coverage to some 20 million people, foreign policy initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal. But now the country has chosen a new administration that could reverse much of that.

You know, on the morning after the election, Obama said America's path doesn't always follow a straight line. It zigs. It zags. So we've had eight years of zigging. We're about to see a pretty big zag. Aides say the president's speech tonight will be forward-looking. I expect he'll take the long view, as he so often does, and to say whatever our political divisions, this is still the United States of America, a country where people can work together to forge a more perfect union. And he'll offer some thoughts about how we might go about that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.