It will be up to history to render final judgment on Barack Obama’s presidency, but the 44th president got at least one positive assessment Friday as he prepared to leave the White House. Chief Usher Angella Reid jokingly advised Obama that he could have his “security deposit back.”
Reid then joined curator William Allman in presenting the president and Michelle Obama with two American flags: one that had flown over the White House on the first day of his presidency and another from his last. Reid also handed over a tall stack of paper towels from the washroom, complete with the gold presidential seal. Obama always joked with guests that they could have as many paper towels as they wanted.
For a couple who embodied change when they entered the White House, the Obamas’ last day there was one full of age-old conventions.
In a ceremony filled with private references, the Obamas thanked the residence staff for their service over the past eight years. Then they sat down for coffee and tea with the incoming president and first lady on the State Floor before escorting the Trumps to the U.S. Capitol.
These rituals, as former White House social secretary Ann Stock put it, “are as old as the nation.”
A presidency that began with a whistle-stop train trip and massive crowds ended much more quietly.
Before the Trumps pulled up at the White House on Friday, President Obama turned to his wife and kissed her on the cheek. She dusted his shoulders off.
Melania Trump presented a blue Tiffany & Co. gift box tied with a white satin ribbon to Michelle Obama — who had given Laura Bush a present eight years ago — but there was no aide on hand to take it. In a digital age where social media has become a primary avenue for channeling political outrage, even relatively innocuous moments like this quickly become fodder for public debate. Some Democrats took a photo of Michelle Obama, looking confused or uncomfortable with the Tiffany box, and quickly converted it into Internet memes aimed at conveying their own displeasure with the Trump inauguration.
The Obamas quietly navigated the rituals that marked their exit from official Washington. Barack Obama bounded over to shake hands with Supreme Court justices who were also seated on the Capitol steps as they waited for President Trump’s inauguration to begin. And he exchanged pats on the shoulder, and a few words, with the incoming president.
Judging from the social media reaction, some Americans were more unwilling to see the Obamas relinquish the White House than they were themselves.
By the time the former president and first lady arrived at a massive hangar at Joint Base Andrews, where about 1,800 administration officials and supporters had gathered, he seemed more than ready to stop giving speeches.
“You know, Michelle and I have really been milking this goodbye thing, so it behooves me to be very brief,” he began.
“No!” the crowd roared back.
Some other presidents have been visibly reluctant to leave town. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who accompanied Bill Clinton out of Washington 16 years ago, joked in an interview that “there must have been claw marks on the Oval Office” as he was pulled away from there.
On Friday, the men and women who had come to the base seemed to be looking for marching orders for the future. They sat in groups arranged largely by agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency in one section, Treasury in another. They broke into an impromptu rendition of the national anthem at one point, and former Health and Human Services Department employee Dominique Chamely held aloft a sign declaring: “Today may be my last day working at the Obama administration, but you know what? HOPE doesn’t quit.”
Even as the crowd sat waiting for the Obamas to arrive, the new administration was erasing the digital fingerprints of the former president’s positions on climate change, civil rights and a host of other policy areas.
But shortly after 1 p.m., as the Obamas entered, they were able to dispense with events happening just a few miles away. Michelle Obama — wearing a red tweed dress with black trim and a coordinating coat, her hair swept up in a neat bun — accompanied her husband onstage. Looking more animated than she had been all day, she mouthed the campaign catchphrase “Yes we can” along with everyone else.
“You proved the power of hope,” the former president told them. “And that doesn’t end. This is just a little pit stop. This is not a period. This is a comma in the continuing story of building America.”
Barack Obama’s political ascent, so rapid and personality-driven, meant that he has not yet been able to institutionalize the movement he helped inspire. On Friday, he argued that he and his wife had only been “the frontmen and frontwomen” for a much broader effort.
“We have been the face, sometimes the voice, out front on the TV screen, or in front of the microphone,” he said, “but this has never been about us, it has always been about you.”
The former president had delivered a similar message Thursday night to the couple of dozen staffers who remained on the job on his last full day in office. During a final champagne toast in the State Dining Room, according to one participant who asked for anonymity to discuss a private event, he addressed the long-running philosophical debate over whether individuals can change the course of history or if structural forces are required to drive that change. He suggested that teams of people — like the ones he assembled — can shape history. He led them out onto the Truman Balcony to take in the view of the Mall. They wandered the recesses of the private residence, including the Yellow Oval Room and the Lincoln Bedroom.
Obama’s speech on Friday lasted seven minutes, and he spent four times as long saying individual goodbyes. Shortly before leaving, he tousled the hair of the young son of his former White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who began working for him a decade ago in Iowa.
As the Obamas walked along holding hands toward the plane that would take them to Palm Springs, Calif., on vacation, former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. snapped a few photos and shook his head, almost in disbelief.
The Boeing 747, designated Special Air Mission 28000 instead of Air Force One for the day, took the couple and nine of their closest friends and former top aides across the country. Diverted to March Air Reserve Base because of weather, the Obamas’ plane landed out of the public eye, as the travelers craned their necks against the windows of the Palm Springs International Airport terminal in vain.
Greg Jaffe in Palm Springs contributed to this report.