Instead his focus was his optimism about civic engagement going forward after a bitter campaign to replace him and lingering concern about how President-elect Donald Trump will handle foreign relations, national security, the economy and other big-ticket issues.
He warned of further threats to American unity. Indeed, the audience booed when he spoke of the peaceful transition of power set to take place next week from him to Trump. He called for a new social compact to creating opportunity for all, or else "the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come."
And the nation's first black president reflected on racial tensions "as old as our nation itself," calling for greater understanding and acceptance of the increasingly diverse nation.
"Laws alone won't be enough. Hearts must change," he said.
Senior advisers say Obama knows that many progressives, religious and ethnic minorities, and immigrants are feeling apprehensive with the approach of the handover to Trump, who was elected after promising to crack down on immigration, scrutinize Muslims in the U.S. and challenge what he termed political correctness.
The president, his White House team and its sprawling alumni network were wistful as they close the Obama era. In recent days on social media, former aides have posted old photos from their underdog campaign in 2008 and early moments in the White House.
The remarks were expected to be Obama's final address in office, though he may still conduct one more news conference before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has used his bully pulpit to inspire, condemn and cajole. He was always heavily involved in writing his biggest speeches, and his team of young speechwriters spent as much time with him as did more senior staff.
Chicago writers have always been at the heart of his craft. His earliest message guru was Chicago political mastermind David Axelrod, who helped him come up with the "yes, we can" concept that propelled him into office. In his second term, his head speechwriter has been Chicago native Cody Keenan, who worked with Obama on the farewell address throughout the holidays.
Obama also worked on it for hours over the weekend. He was still at work on it Monday as his team prepared for the trip to Chicago.