President Barack Obama's farewell address at McCormick Place on Tuesday night is not intended as a victory lap, but a call to action to the next generation of leaders, White House officials said.
"It's a passing of the baton," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a group of reporters on the eve of Obama's last speech to the nation.
The speech is set for 8 p.m. at the lakefront convention center. Planning began last summer, when Obama, Psaki and other top advisers were mapping out the final months of his eight years in office. She said when Obama was told that previous presidents had delivered farewell remarks, he asked aides if the speech had to be delivered from Washington.
"Chicago was a natural place for him, not just because it's hometown," Psaki said, "but because it's where he got his political start, and it's where he really first learned the lesson … that it's about the actions of individuals and the actions of people, that's how real change happens."
Psaki and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett briefed reporters Monday from the White House Roosevelt Room, which is where they broached the final speech idea with the president. It was Jarrett who said "it's not a victory lap speech."
"His intention is to motivate people to want to get involved and fight for their democracy," Jarrett said. "The major focus on the speech isn't going to be reflecting back on how far we've come over the last eight years, but really looking forward and how we take the accomplishments, many (of which) through the hard work and grit of the American people came to fruition, and build on that going forward."
The president is looking forward to new people stepping up, whether they run for office, volunteer for a school board or tutor children after school, Jarrett said.
Details of the remarks — and even the expected audience size — remained closely guarded. Psaki initially said more than 14,000 people were expected at McCormick Place, then said she did not wish to predict the crowd size.
It's a "serious speech" — not a "rally" — and will be delivered to an audience seated in chairs, she said. Expect it to be shorter than a State of the Union speech, Psaki said. For Obama, that probably means it will run less than an hour.
In addition to the thousands who stood in line at McCormick Place to score a free ticket on Saturday, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden will be in attendance. So will White House and campaign veterans from around the U.S., plus elected officials from Illinois and other states, according to the aides. They did not disclose whether first daughters Malia and Sasha would attend.
Despite the White House's insistence that the speech will not be a "victory lap," Obama appears poised to tout several major achievements.
Jarrett reminded reporters that Obama inherited the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, and that Osama bin Laden is no longer plotting against the country since being killed in a raid in 2011.
"By every possible metric over the last eight years, the president has moved the needle," Jarrett said.
The White House provided 11 pieces of then-and-now data sets that captured milestones of the Obama presidency. Among them:
•Unemployment was 7.8 percent when the president took office; it peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 and had fallen to 4.6 percent by last November.
•The rate of people without health insurance was 16 percent in 2010 and had dropped to 8.9 percent in 2016.
•The number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan totaled 176,800 in 2009; 144,000 in 2010; and 14,400 in 2016.
•The high school graduation rate was 75 percent in 2008-09 and it had risen to 83 percent in 2014-15.
•Four states had marriage equality in 2009; now all do.
Obama likely will recall his campaign trademarks — hope and change — and reflect on how each generation of citizens has made change happen.
Psaki said the speech would be refined over the course of Monday night and perhaps right up to the moment Obama takes the stage.
Obama's top speechwriter, Cody Keenan, a 36-year-old Chicago native, played a key role in preparing the remarks, starting in mid-December when he sat down with the president for a "basic, high-level discussion about what (Obama) wanted to say."
Keenan, who spent much of his childhood in the Chicago area and is a graduate of Northwestern University, said in an interview on Friday that he worked on the speech during several days in Hawaii over the Christmas and New Year's holidays. He said he never saw Obama during that time, but handed the president a completed draft for him to review on Air Force One on the return trip to Washington.
Keenan got his start with the president as a campaign intern in 2007 and has had a hand in writing many important presidential speeches. Obama, the author of best-selling books and a former law professor, can be an exacting boss but is professorial when explaining what changes he wants made, Keenan said.
Obama is not a fan of either rhetorical questions or sound bites, preferring longer, more interesting stories to make people think, Keenan said. The president also often uses speeches to try to move people to action or to a cause, said Keenan, whom the president, teasingly, used to call "Hemingway."
A devoted fan of the Cubs, Keenan said he's excited to be returning to Chicago on Tuesday. He said the World Series championship last November was the second best week of his life. The best came last July, when he married Kristen Bartoloni, the White House deputy director of research and rapid response adviser.
After years in high-pressure jobs, the two plan to kick back after Obama leaves office. For now, the speechwriter had a tiny farewell of his own.
"I think what I'd want everyone to know," Keenan said, "(is) that we did the best we could for eight years and we hope we did right by everybody, and it's been an honor and privilege to be able to work for this guy in this White House."