As Donald Trump gets ready to assume office, Barack Obama prepares his farewell
President Obama must like long goodbyes.
The two-term Democratic commander-in-chief is bidding farewell to the country in a formal prime-time address on Tuesday, but he has also met with congressional Democrats, published a Harvard Law Review article, invited his Cabinet to publish “exit memoranda” detailing agency-wide achievements, and done a round of interviews with regional television. Starting Jan. 12, History.com will publish an eight-part oral history of his administration, featuring commentary from Obama and 23 aides, including Vice President Joe Biden. On Friday night, he and first lady Michelle Obama will host a star-studded soirée with celebrities and major donors, the Washington Post reported.
But on Jan. 20, less than an hour after Donald Trump takes the oath of office, the Obamas will play host to a far more exclusive and emotional goodbye at Joint Base Andrews, the home to Air Force One. The hourlong ceremony will be for administration officials — well, for suddenly jobless former administration officials, about to be replaced by Trump’s picks.
“All appointees are invited to JBA to say farewell to President and Mrs. Obama at a sendoff ceremony,” said an email sent to prospective attendees. “The event location is indoors but the site is not well heated so we encourage anyone interested in attending to dress warmly.”
Weather permitting, the Obamas are expected to arrive at Andrews aboard the green-and-white helicopter known as “Marine One” while he is president, but which is typically renamed “Executive One” when it carries a former commander in chief on that final ride.
Obama has announced his long-term plans, to work on criminal justice reform and his My Brother’s Keeper foundation to help young men and boys of color and on building the library that will house his presidential papers. He and Michelle Obama are expected to stay in Washington, D.C., at least through the high school graduation of their younger daughter, Sasha, in 2019.
His medium-term plans, he said at a town hall in October, focus on recovering from the grueling job of the presidency. “I am going to sleep for two weeks, and then I am going to take Michelle on a very nice vacation,” he said.
But his short-term plans — where he’ll go immediately after the sendoff in a Joint Base Andrews hangar — aren’t clear. Obama has been rumored variously to be planning to jet off on vacation immediately, to be heading to a rented mansion in Washington, or travel to Chicago.
Things were a little more definite when Obama’s predecessor left town. Unlike the current president, whose approval ratings are in the mid- to high 50s, George W. Bush was deeply unpopular, his ratings weighed down by the war in Iraq and the economic crisis of 2008.
Bush also held an Andrews hangar event, pulling in about 2,000 former staffers, some of whom described the event to me back then. Others recalled the details this week as I reported this story. The Republican two-termer described himself as “thankful, grateful and joyful” and looked forward to being “Citizen Bush.”
“I remember joking that we were attending the largest gathering of unemployed people in the nation, considering the fact that we were all jobless when the clock struck 12,” said former White House aide Pete Seat. “And, no joke, when our paychecks arrived a week later, we were paid for four hours that day. The Constitution means business!”
Bush and Laura Bush flew down to Midland, Texas, for a rally with supporters. The former president joked that his wife “told me she was excited about me mowing the lawn and taking out the trash — it’s my new domestic agenda!”
Bush, who had always said he’d be long dead by the time history rendered a final verdict on his presidency, also declared: “When I get home tonight and look in the mirror, I am not going to regret what I see. Except maybe some gray hair.”
If Obama follows tradition, he’ll leave a handwritten note for Trump in the top drawer of the Resolute Desk, the Oval Office fixture built from the timbers of the British ship of the same name. He’ll also take a final spin through the Oval Office. Obama will call a handful of friends, senior aides, former top advisers and world leaders. Bush said goodbye to his press secretary, Dana Perino, with “a big kiss on the forehead, which I will never forget,” Perino said eight years ago, as she handed out candies in red, white and blue boxes emblazoned with the presidential seal and his signature. Josh Earnest is more likely to get a handshake and a hug.
Barack and Michelle Obama are expected to host Trump and Melania Trump for coffee before the two couples board the armored presidential limousine dubbed “The Beast” for the drive down to the west steps in front of the Capitol. That is likely to be Obama’s final trip in the official motorcade, with its Secret Service SUVs, heavily armed guards, ambulance and platoon of reporters in two vans.
Once the incoming president and outgoing leader depart for the Capitol, the General Services Administration that oversees the White House facilities will shift into high gear — repainting the offices in the West Wing and adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building, recarpeting, redecorating the Oval Office to the incoming president’s specifications.
It’s not clear whether Obama’s daughters will follow in the footsteps of Bush’s twin daughters, who wrote an open letter urging Sasha, then 7, and Malia, then 10, to ignore the slings and arrows of the press and late-night comics. Trump’s son Barron is expected to stay in New York City until the end of the school year.
Surround yourselves with “loyal friends,” Jenna and Barbara wrote. “They’ll protect and calm you and join in on some of the fun, and appreciate the history.”
Don’t worry so much about seeing harsh portrayals of the president in a “sketch in a paper or part of a skit on TV,” they wrote.
After the note, the coffee, the motorcade, the oath-taking and the hangar, there may be the most private tribute of all. The Bushes flew down to Midland with a club of longtime aides, including some who had stuck with them since the 2000 campaign. On the flight, the former president and first lady watched a slideshow of some of the administration’s highlights.