For the first question of his final news conference as president Wednesday, President Obama was asked to defend his decision to commute Chelsea Manning's prison sentence.

Manning, then an Army private named Bradley Manning, was convicted of leaking secret military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks and sentenced to 35 years. Obama was asked whether commuting her sentence would “send a message” to potential future Mannings that leaking classified materials won't be punished harshly.

Obama demurred:

Let's be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence, so the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished, I don't think, would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served.
It has been my view that given she went to trial; that due process was carried out; that she took responsibility for her crime; that the sentence that she received was very disproportional — disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received; and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute and not pardon her sentence.

And that, right there, may go to the heart of why conservatives and foreign policy hawks could never stand Obama.

Through a series of decisions — most notably the Manning clemency, the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap and the Syria “red line" — Obama made controversial calls that critics worried would set bad precedents for U.S. national security and foreign policy. The president, though, approached these situations from more of a pragmatic and in-the-moment standpoint, looking at the specifics of each case and making a call — wanting to do what he felt was right in the specific case.

In the case of Bergdahl, the administration traded five Taliban prisoners for the release of the Army sergeant, whose return was initially hailed by the White House. But he was later charged with having deserted his post and decried by those who cite his desertion for causing the deaths of others who were forced to search for him. It was the subject of Season 2 of the popular “Serial” podcast.

The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee at the time, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), said that it set a “dangerous precedent that puts all Americans at risk throughout the world,” and many Republicans made similar arguments, saying that it put a target on other servicemembers who could be targeted for what amounted to a ransom.

As for the Syria red line, Republicans and even some Democrats worried that Obama's decision to place that red line at Syria using chemical weapons and then failing to act upon it when the red line was crossed undermined future U.S. foreign policy pledges. Former Obama defense secretary and GOP senator Chuck Hagel (Neb.) said flatly last month that it was a mistake.

“When the president of the United States says something to the world, that's a big deal,” Hagel said on CNN. “And then not fulfill a commitment that he made, your allies lose confidence and trust in your leadership and your word.”

As you can see, this outlook has occasionally alienated hawkish Democrats and even members of Obama's own Cabinet, too — not just Republicans.

But in a lot of ways, it's what sets the two parties and ideologies apart from one another. The same divide exists on many other issues.

Take immigration, for instance. Democrats believe in comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants to bring them out of the shadows; Republicans believe this amounts to amnesty and rewards those who broke the law by putting them at “the front of the line” ahead of those attempting to immigrate legally. The GOP thinks it's the wrong message to send and a bad precedent. Some Republicans even oppose the idea of allowing the children of illegal immigrants — also known as DREAMers — to stay, because of the precedent that sets.

So in some ways it was a predictable split. But Obama also seemed to take positions, like the Manning one, that clearly erred on the side of immediate pragmatism over long-term precedent, even when it alarmed some of his allies.

In that way, the Manning episode is a pretty fitting coda to his tenure.