The weekend before President Obama’s planned farewell address was a good one by Chicago’s violent standards — only one person was killed by gunfire and eight others were wounded.
As Mr. Obama returns home Tuesday to deliver his final speech as president, Chicago is in the grips of a soaring homicide rate and reeling from a horrific black-on-white torture hate crime that was captured on video. Over Christmas weekend, 12 Chicagoans were killed in a total of 27 shootings.
Amid criticism that the president and his former chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have failed for eight years to address the city’s violence and racial divisions, Mr. Obama nevertheless will bask in the adoration of thousands of friends and supporters in a prime-time speech reviewing his presidency and offering his prescriptions for the challenges ahead.
Some Chicago residents say it’s shaping up as a hollow valedictory speech.
“He didn’t need to come to Chicago for the speech, and he knows that doing so calls attention not only to the city’s troubles but to his administration’s failures to solve them,” said Charles Lipson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “Chicago’s troubles highlight the deep national divisions, social breakdown, income inequality and gun violence that Barack Obama was elected to ameliorate. His administration not only failed, most of the problems grew worse.”
He said the question of who is responsible for those failures “will be the debate about his presidency.”
Brunell Donald-Kyei of Chicago, a lifelong Democrat who became a member of President-elect Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, said Mr. Obama brought no real change to the city.
“It’s really sad,” she said on Fox News. “Promises of hope and change with jobs and educational programs never came.”
In 2009, the year Mr. Obama took office, Chicago recorded 459 homicides. Last year, that number was 762 — an increase of 66 percent — with a total of 4,331 shooting victims. The city’s homicide rate was the highest in 20 years.
President-elect Donald Trump said last week that it might be time for Washington to step in.
“Chicago murder rate is record setting,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter. “If Mayor can’t do it he must ask for Federal help!”
Chicago Police Board Chairwoman Lori Lightfoot agreed that the city needs federal help.
“We need to have more federal gun prosecutions in Chicago,” she told NPR. “Our federal partners from the U.S. attorney’s office, the ATF, the FBI need to be much more invested in this overall strategy. The Chicago Police Department cannot tackle this issue by itself.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has blamed weak regulations for repeat gun offenders.
“The people committing these crimes think the consequences for their actions are a joke,” he said.
Chicago has become the favored distribution point for Mexican drug cartels. The gunfire between rival gangs has increased to the extent that the violence is spilling onto the city’s expressways, where 38 people were shot in cars last year. In 2012, nine shootings were reported on expressways.
With the high level of gun violence already plaguing the city, Chicagoans were confronted last week with a reported hate crime that quickly became notorious. Four black people were charged with torturing and beating a white special-needs teenager for hours and videotaping the crime.
Police said they don’t know the motive. One of the suspects told the victim to, “Say f*** Trump b****. F*** Trump. Say f*** Trump.”
Mr. Obama called the episode “despicable” and a hate crime.
The president’s spokesman said Mr. Obama has no illusions that the nation still has a long way to go to overcome racial divisions.
“The president certainly understands that we’ve got a lot of work to do, and there are reasons for people to feel pessimistic that we haven’t made as much progress as we would like,” he said. “But in the president’s mind, it’s impossible to deny that we have, in fact, made progress.”
The White House said Mr. Obama doesn’t intend to sugarcoat the city’s problems but also isn’t likely to dwell on them in what is being billed as an optimistic, forward-looking speech. It’s also shaping up as a road map for opposing the policies of Mr. Trump.
“The president is a primarily delivering a message to the American people, all Americans, whether they voted for President Obama or not,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who added that Mr. Obama wants to discuss solutions to “the challenges that lie ahead.”
“Most of those solutions, in the mind of the president, rest on the deeply held values that just about every American subscribes to,” he said. “And those values include fairness and justice, include the idea that if you work hard you should have the opportunity to succeed regardless of what you look like, what your last name is or who you love. And the president believes that — that obviously, that diversity of this country is a strength.”
Even before he delivered the speech, Mr. Obama was fundraising off of it to help fight the next administration and the Republican-majority Congress. In an email to Democrats on Monday, the president said he views the speech as “a major moment as we prepare for what’s ahead.”
“What we do now determines how we’ll rebuild and reimagine our party, and how we will fight back against any efforts to undermine the work that we have done together,” Mr. Obama said. “We will have to work harder now, more so than ever before, to keep our country from moving in what we know is the wrong direction.”
Although Chicago has significant problems, the city still largely embraces Mr. Obama as a favored son. Thousands of people waited in bitterly cold weather for hours on Saturday to get tickets to his speech, with lines stretching for blocks.
“Giving his final presidential speech in Chicago is President Obama’s tip of the hat to the city that launched his political career,” Mr. Lipson said. “It is generous, too, since he will be living in Washington, not Chicago, immediately after he leaves office. And most people think he will not spend much time in the Windy City in his post-presidency.”
The Obamas will live in a rented home in Washington for about two years while their younger daughter, Sasha, completes high school.
But the first family will depart Washington on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, by flying one last time on the presidential aircraft known as Air Force One, likely to Chicago. The plane won’t be designated as Air Force One for that final trip, however, because the designation is reserved only for the sitting president — Mr. Trump.