photo of President Barack Obama

SPOTLIGHT FEATURE - May, 2017

President Barack Obama’s Final Press Conference

THE LAST HOUR ~ FastForward covers the final press conference

By Matt Geffen, Grade 12, Marin Academy

The energy at the White House is notably different then it was just a few months ago. As Pennsylvania Avenue is transformed into a viewing area for the Inaugural Parade, Secret Service maintains a wide perimeter around the complex. Before I can even approach the Northwest Appointment Gate, the entry point for the White House Press Corps, a member of the Secret Service stops and questions me. To my relief, one of his colleagues quickly informs him that I have been cleared for entry.

After another security screening, I am escorted across the White House grounds to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, where press conferences have been held all the way back to the Nixon era. Reporters from every imaginable news outlet are in a frenzy as they prepare to cover President Obama’s final news conference. The room is filled far beyond its capacity of around 50 seats, which prompts jokes from a few media members about the need for a bigger press briefing room. These jokes come days after the Trump Administration suggested moving press briefings off-site in order to accommodate more journalists, a concept that was heavily criticized by both the White House Correspondents’ Association and news outlets alike. The West Wing, as it stands, is a vital staging area for reporters, providing media access to both senior White House Officials and daily briefings from the Press Secretary. This recent proposition is just one example of the stark contrast between the Obama and Trump administrations in their treatment of the press—Obama maintains a very cordial relationship with the media, while Trump has been extremely critical of mainstream outlets such as CNN and The Washington Post, even going so far as to call CNN “fake news.”

When a woman’s voice sounds over the intercom to announce a two-minute warning for the press conference, journalists, photographers and cameramen begin to quiet down, performing final tests on their equipment and pulling out phones as they prepare to live-tweet or live-stream. A sliding door opens and President Obama walks out casually, followed by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and other staff. The President begins by joking that he was “sorely tempted” to wear a tan suit for his final press conference—but Michelle told him that the clothing choice wasn’t appropriate in January. On a more serious note, he acknowledges his gratitude for his long journey with the press, remarking, “We have traveled the world together. We did a few singles, a few doubles together.” He declares, “America needs you and our democracy needs you. We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debated that ultimately lead to progress.” Today, the Briefing Room is filled with the same feeling of melancholy that is reverberating around the nation.

The first question of the day concerns the commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence for the leak of classified documents and the message that might send to other leakers around the world. Obama explains that the decision was based on his belief “that due process was carried out,” citing a sentence “disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received.”

The upcoming inauguration does not take long to come up in discussion, as Obama is asked about his personal conversations with Donald Trump. Obama responds by saying, “I can tell you that—and this is something I have told him—that this is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself. You are enormously reliant on a team.” He emphasizes of the importance of healthy debate, fact-checking and collaboration: “Reality has a way of biting back if you’re not paying attention to it.” Obama speaks slowly and deliberately, backed by the intermittent clicks and bursts of cameras.

Asked if he plans on exploring the political arena again, Obama commented, “Let me be absolutely clear. I did not mean that I was going to be running for anything anytime soon. So, what I meant is that it’s important for me to take some time to process this amazing experience that we’ve gone through; to make sure that my wife, with whom I will be celebrating a 25th anniversary this year, is willing to re-up and put up with me for a little bit longer. I want to do some writing. I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much. I want to spend precious time with my girls. So those are my priorities this year.”

I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad... there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time.

Later on, when questioned as to whether he expects to see another black President, he says, “I think we’re going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country. Because that’s America’s strength.” He replies with confidence, “We’re going to have a woman president. We’re going to have a Latino president. And we’ll have a Jewish president, a Hindu president. You know, who knows who we’re going to have. I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them.”

About an hour later, he grants his final question to reporter Christie Parsons, who has been covering him all the way back to his time as a state senator in Illinois. She asks about how he and Michelle discuss with their daughters the meaning of this election. Obama responds, “What we’ve also tried to teach them is resilience and 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.” He continues, “I think they have in part through osmosis, in part through dinner time conversations appreciated the fact that this is a big complicated country and democracy is messy, it doesn’t always work exactly the way you might want. It doesn’t guarantee certain outcomes. But if you—if you’re engaged and you’re involved, then there are a lot more good people than bad in this country and there’s a core decency to this country and—that they got to be a part of lifting that up. And I expect they will be.”

Speaking on his own view of America, he reiterates his candidness before reflecting, “I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about.”

He ends the conference with another thank you to the Press Corps and a sincere “Good luck.” Many of the reporters in the room know they will need it for their next beat.

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