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Obama ready to say farewell to the White House, but not to his legacy

President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday night.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

When U.S. President Barack Obama described his postpresidential life earlier last year, he had an air of relaxed confidence. There would be time to sleep and write and work on causes important to him while his successor cemented his legacy.

The election of Donald Trump changed all of that. Now, Mr. Obama is working to protect his legislative achievements from attack and to rally demoralized Democrats. And instead of using his final address as a fond farewell to the White House, he issued a call to action.

In his speech Tuesday night, Mr. Obama warned of the perils facing U.S. democracy. The country's potential will be realized only "if our politics better reflects the decency of our people," he said. Democracy requires a sense of solidarity, he continued, a feeling that "for all our outward differences, we're in this together, that we rise or fall as one."

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"Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear," Mr. Obama said.

"We must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are."

In depth: Obama's legacy, and future, is rooted in Chicago's South Side

He urged every American to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship. "If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing," he said. "If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, collect some signatures and run for your office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it."

It's advice that Mr. Obama may take himself. His previous strategy for how to approach his post-White House life has "gone out the window," said Anthony Clark, author of The Last Campaign, a book on how U.S. presidents burnish their legacies after leaving office.

"There will be a pressure on him to be pro-active," Mr. Clark said. "He's going to be engaged much more quickly and thoroughly in the events of the day than any other president in the modern era."

Mr. Obama, 55, still plans to take a break after Mr. Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20. But the current President has indicated an eagerness to advise Democrats on strategy and cultivate the next generation of party leadership.

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Former presidents normally refrain from criticizing their successors and Mr. Obama has said he intends to observe that tradition. However, in rare instances, he may emerge as a voice of opposition to Mr. Trump. In an interview last month with David Axelrod, Mr. Obama said he wouldn't weigh in on "a debate about a particular tax bill" but could speak out on policies that relate to "foundational issues about our democracy." Such issues might include measures perceived to infringe on individual rights.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama finds himself in an unprecedented situation. Mr. Trump has said that a top priority is to repeal his predecessor's signature achievement – the health-care legislation known as Obamacare – as quickly as possible. Mr. Clark, the author of the book on presidential legacies, said he could think of no analogous situation in the history of modern transitions of power in the United States.

Last week, in an unusual move for a departing president, Mr. Obama went to Capitol Hill for a closed-door meeting with Democratic lawmakers to discuss their strategy to oppose Republican efforts to dismantle Obamacare. Mr. Obama urged his colleagues not to "rescue" Republicans by helping them to pass a replacement measure, according to CNN.

The imminent brawl over Obamacare is just one example of how Mr. Trump's election has created a new dynamic for Mr. Obama's postpresidential life. Mr. Obama is expected to spend time raising money for his presidential library to be built in Chicago, a legacy-burnishing task that has become more pressing now that Mr. Trump is set on undoing some of Mr. Obama's achievements.

Mr. Obama will also work on initiatives such as My Brother's Keeper, a mentorship program he launched for young men of colour. Another vehicle for future activism will likely be Organizing for Action, a Chicago-based non-profit focused on supporting Mr. Obama's policy priorities.

At the same time, Mr. Obama wants to offer counsel to the Democratic Party as it struggles to regroup. In particular, Mr. Obama has advice on how the party can make its message heard in places where Democrats are viewed as "coastal, liberal, latte-sipping … out-of-touch folks," as he put it during a news conference in December.

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Mitch Stewart, a partner at 270 Strategies, a consulting firm founded by alumni of Mr. Obama's campaigns, predicted that Mr. Obama will continue to exercise influence on the party. "The degree to which we see him on a day-in, day-out basis is certainly going to change," Mr. Stewart said. "But the spirit and values that he has instilled in the Democratic Party will remain the bedrock."

For presidents leaving office, life after the White House can run the gamut from engagement with world politics to a near-total retreat from the public arena. President Jimmy Carter became a celebrated activist who at times irritated his successors with his interventions on the global stage. President George W. Bush, by contrast, withdrew from the limelight almost entirely.

Mr. Obama will chart his own course. Unlike any president in recent memory, Mr. Obama will remain in Washington for a couple of years while his youngest daughter Sasha finishes high school. "He's going to face a lot of pressure to be the party leader," Mr. Clark said. "I think he's going to be conscripted into the resistance."

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