For some reason we all thought it would be a good idea for me to go to President Obama’s last press conference, and for a while it all seemed great. No credential hassle, and I got waved right past a group of photographers at the gate of the White House grounds who were waiting for someone to clear their entry.
Then I got to the door of the briefing room, on a driveway that sweeps down below ground level and leads directly into the room you see on TV all the time. There was, of course, no way to get in. And I wasn’t late. I was pretty early. You walk a little farther down that driveway, toward the center of the building, and there’s another door that leads to where the press hangs their coats and to the cubicle areas. “Two-minute warning” eventually came over the speakers. So I listened from there, from what looked to be a Bloomberg desk.
It lasted almost exactly one hour, an hour during which the President made no actual news that I could hear. Inevitably, Chelsea Manning was the first question, and Obama, equally inevitably, answered methodically, in as dull a way as he possibly could. I don’t mean that as a put-down. Quite the contrary. America, or most of it, is going to come to miss that dull very soon. Her sentence, Obama said, was “very disproportionate to what other leakers had received”; he went on a bit longer and concluded by saying that he was confident that “justice has been served and a message still has been sent” to potential future Mannings, in that she has served four years.
He mostly went out of his way not to make news, not to say anything that will disturb the serenity of his exit two days hence, on billowy clouds of good will and a 60 percent approval rating. Someone asked him what he thought about the Democratic House members boycotting the inauguration. Not gonna comment. “I’ll be there, and so will Michelle.” Conversations with Trump? Not gonna comment. “Cordial.” Although he did add, and this qualifies as cheeky by Obama’s droll standards: “I have told him, ‘This is a job of such magnitude you can’t do it by yourself.’”
If there was news, it wasn’t about Manning, and it was delivered only between the lines. I think Obama made it crystal clear in this press conference that he’s going to stay on the scene and in the arena. Someone asked him about his future plans. After “do some writing” and “spend time with my girls,” he countered himself: “But as I’ve said, I’m still a citizen.”
Then he launched into a little disquisition laying out the kinds of things that would compel him to speak out. He distinguished here between “the normal functioning of politics” on the one hand versus, on the other, “certain issues or certain moments where our core values are stake.” He enumerated four that he would perceive as the latter and that would make him inclined to “speak out”: situations where discrimination is being “ratified” (interesting and slightly unexpected word) by some law or action; where obstacles were put up to the right to vote; where “institutional efforts” were made to silence dissent or the press; and where efforts were undertaken “to round up kids who’ve grown up here and are in essence American kids and send them someplace else.”
This is interesting because Donald Trump and the Republicans are certain to do the first two, very likely to do the third, and kinda likely to do the fourth. So if Obama’s true to his word, he’s likely to be doing a lot of talking.
The last question went to Christi Parsons, who’s been covering him since he was in the Illinois state house. Gave the whole thing a kind of wistful feel. The question was about how he and Michelle had spoken to their daughters about the election. Obama said he was talking about his daughters, but one couldn’t help but feel he was really talking about himself: “They don’t mope. They don’t feel that somehow America has rejected them or rejected their values.”
I wonder. It would be kind of hard not to feel that, at least at times. But then again, Trump lost by 3 million votes. People were not rejecting Obama. Rejecting Hillary, okay. But he’s at 60. He’s up there with where Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were when they left office. It’s a number that a few months ago, most of us wouldn’t have dreamed Obama would ever hit again.
And Trump is at 40, at best. In one poll that came out Wednesday morning, his favorable rating was down to 32 percent. It’s pretty hard to imagine him ever seeing 60. Even if he does somehow manage to preside over a booming economy or win a war, he’s sure to do it in a way that seeks to offend at least 41 percent of the people.
That’s the difference between the man leaving the White House and the one moving into it. The one leaving it may not exactly have united the country, but he tried (and you can make a semi-plausible case that 60 percent approval constitutes a kind of unity). The one moving in won’t try. He wants division, anger, revenge.
As I walked away, I stared at that great house. It has survived a lot, and I suppose it will survive Trump. I doubt, though, that it’s ever seen such a diametric change from one president to the next. But I’ll close with one other thing Obama said, when answering that question about his daughters. It’s something we’ll do well to remind ourselves over the next four years: “The only thing that’s the end of the world is…the end of the world.” Let’s just hope it doesn’t come.