WASHINGTON — “The only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”
With that parting message to the nation, a sanguine Barack Obama sought to reassure the millions of Democrats disorientated and fearful about Donald Trump’s pending inauguration that presidents may change but the nation always endures.
Still, in his final news conference as president, Obama warned that only an active citizenry and relentless political engagement can preserve what he sees as the successes of his administration and the values he believes have already made America great.
Obama drew a figurative line between his about-to-expire administration and the incoming Republican one that aims to destroy much of his legacy. His comments established an implicit scorecard for voters to use when judging which vision of government they prefer in the years ahead. Obama also struck a striking stylistic contrast with the President-elect, hinting at the change that will come to White House optics in two days.
But mostly he offered a message of reassurance at a time of national uncertainty after the most tumultuous presidential transition in modern history.
“This is not just a matter of no drama Obama, this is what I really believe,” Obama told reporters in the White House press briefing room. “It is true that behind closed doors, I curse more than I do publicly … and sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does. But at my core, I think we’re going to be OK.”
“We just have to fight for it,” he added. “We have to work for it and not take it for granted.”
Obama’s characteristic sangfroid was a notable contrast to the political division and anxiety that emerged from last year’s bitter campaign season. But Obama, citing the resilience of his daughters Malia and Sasha after the shock of the election, told his supporters: “We’ve tried to teach them hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”
Obama’s final news conference was also a chance for Obama, as aides packed up their belongings in the maze of West Wing offices behind the briefing room, to display the courtly manner that has rarely slipped in eight White House years.
He was constrained and cool, chose vocabulary that tiptoed around controversy, and called on journalists from a list prepared by his staff. His interactions with reporters was respectful but mostly distant. It was one last chance to witness the professorial demeanor that comes across to many Republicans as patronizing.
Things will change from Friday at noon.
Just a week ago, in his own news conference, the President-elect oozed passion and a relentless relish for confrontation. He called on reporters not off a pre-planned rotation but with a swing of his arm.
With a 60% approval rating on his way out the door, according to a CNN/ORC poll, Obama appeared confident his place in history is secure.
Still, Trump won the only contest that matters in November and will now have the chance to wipe out much of Obama’s legacy.
That successive elections could have produced such different presidents in temperament and political background perhaps shows the elasticity of the American political system and the uncertainty of the times. Obama, conscious that his successor was probably watching on television, sought to avoid open conflicts with Trump even as the contrasts were clear.
He mounted a ringing defense of a free media and the need for the White House press corps to hold a president to account from within the West Wing itself — a status Trump aides have already suggested may be at risk.
In a clear nod to the push for the diversity that has been an undercurrent of his administration, Obama’s questioners included a Latina woman, a journalist for an Arab television channel, an African American woman and a man who works for an LGBT publication.
After an hour-and-a-quarter, Obama simply said “Thank you very much, press corps — good luck” as a presidency that opened in a euphoric blast of hope and change slipped quietly into its final hours.