CHICAGO — As Barack Obama took the stage in Chicago to close out his presidency, the unseasonably warm temperatures were reminiscent of the balmy November evening eight years ago when he delivered his victory speech in nearby Grant Park.
But with the upcoming transition to President-elect Trump, for many the political climate of the country has grown chilly, the people divided.
Still, inside McCormick Center where Obama delivered his address, the crowd was unanimously supportive of the outgoing president. The audience was a diverse mosaic, and many people had waited for hours in the freezing cold to obtain a free ticket. Some paid hundreds of dollars on the secondary market for a chance to be present for the final remarks.
Obama did not disappoint his fans in the speech, which largely focused on the state of American democracy and implored people to work together, despite differences.
“Democracy does not require uniformity,” he said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity… that we rise or fall as one.”
The crowd cheered wildly during the speech, and at times rose to their feet in thunderous applause. There were chants of “Four more years,” along with tears.
While the president took stock of his foreign policy legacy, including the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the Iran nuclear deal, he was noticeably silent on Israel.
To the Jews who attended the event, Obama was a good president, although some said they were torn about his policies on Israel.
“This is the first president in which we saw a great divide between Israel and America,” said Laura Cohen. “There’s definitely a divide between Obama’s policies toward Israel and that of Israel’s own policies. This has been a really hard road for many American Jews who feel stuck in the middle.”
Judy Hoffman of Chicago said, “Obama’s position on Israel and Palestine is in fact healthy for Israel and Israelis. A vigorous self-examination needs to be conducted before the entire social fabric frays.”
Jane Saks attended the event with her elderly mother, Esther. They are avid Obama supporters, despite other members of their family having voted for Donald Trump.
Saks said she had hoped that “along with climate change and the economy, the Middle East would have been more of a focus of Obama’s presidency.”
Esther added, “My perception of Obama is that he wanted to avoid conflict. He wanted to try to settle conflict in a diplomatic way rather than aggravating the conflict. His position with the UN vote is somewhat quixotic. I’m not sure why he did that, because the UN has never been kind to Israel. But maybe he felt there was no other way to go.”
“I think he was an excellent president for Israel,” said Marcia Balonick, executive director of the Jewish organization Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs (JAC). “I hope people don’t throw away his good legacy because of the UN vote. That shouldn’t dismiss eight years of a good thing.”
Balonick attended the event with Hollis Wein, the director of communications for JAC.
‘I hope people don’t throw away his good legacy because of the UN vote. That shouldn’t dismiss eight years of a good thing’
Wein echoed Balonick’s sentiments. “Obama had Israel’s back. He understood the importance of a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. Trump by comparison is scary. He wants a one-state solution and that’s not going to be productive for the peace process.”
With uncertainty looming over the Middle East just as an ascending Trump has some American Jews on edge at home, Brianne Dotts felt that the president had issued a call to do better.
“Obama’s speech was a call to action,” she said. “If I am afraid of Trump’s potential impact on me as an LGBT Jew, then it is up to me to stand up for my ideals. Obama’s speech left me with renewed energy that I can do more.”