How Barack Obama spent his final day in office

Former president departs White House with a promise: ‘I’ll be right there with you’


With barely a flicker to betray the emotions of the day, Barack and Michelle Obama stepped out of the White House at 10.50am today for the last time as president and first lady of the United States.

After eight years as America’s first black president, Obama departed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and prepared to hand over the keys not to America’s first female president in Hillary Clinton, as he hoped and expected, but to Donald Trump.

The Obamas and the Trumps, Donald and Melania, had just spent 45 minutes inside over tea and coffee, a tradition.

The public greetings were measured and diplomatically warm – Melania Trump handing over a blue Tiffany gift box as the new occupants were welcomed on the threshold under the North Portico. The Obamas seemed stiffer, more formal versions of themselves.

Within the hour they were off, travelling together to Capitol Hill – the women in one limousine and the men who would exchange power side by side in the car behind.

Perhaps conscious that once the Trumps arrived at the White House, everything would become something of a blur, Obama had taken to his presidential Twitter account, @POTUS (President of the United States) to communicate some thoughts.

“It’s been the honor of my life to serve you,” he wrote just after 9am. “You made me a better leader and a better man.”

Then: “I won’t stop; I’ll be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by your voices of truth and justice, good humour and love.”

And: “I’m still asking you to believe – not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours. I believe in change because I believe in you.”

At 9.14am, Obama was filmed through the glass door of the Oval Office as he completed his final act there, leaving a letter of welcome to his successor, as tradition allows. The portentous moment was leavened, however, as he shared the space with a man halfway up a step ladder, who appeared to be removing the last traces of the 44th president in time for the imminent arrival of the 45th.

Asked if he felt nostalgic as he left the office, Obama replied: “Of course.” With those two words and his last presidential words immortalised on the web, he was out.

Arriving at the Capitol to witness the official passing of power on a mild, cloudy day with dampness in the air, he and Michelle took their places on the west front of the Capitol. Earlier in the morning, a US Marine Corps helicopter had already been spotted on the east side, waiting to take the Obamas away.

Obama sat next to outgoing vice-president, Joe Biden. Michelle Obama sat behind him; behind her were the Clintons.

After President Trump wound up his inauguration speech, Obama shook his hand, clapped him on the arm and could be seen mouthing “good job”.

The Obamas followed the Trumps up the carpeted stairs back into the Capitol, each stopping at the top to greet Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican candidate for president, and his wife Elizabeth, seated next to the entrance. Once inside, Obama and Trump strode across the Rotunda together, their wives behind with vice-president Mike Pence and his wife, Karen.

Speaker Paul Ryan and leading Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were among politicians gathered, alongside military guardsman on the steps of the east front of the Capitol as the Obamas and Trumps emerged back into the outdoors.

Broad smile

Obama descended the steps shoulder to shoulder with Trump, the two chatting and sharing a joke. At the bottom, Obama smiled broadly. His wife could not hide an expression akin to melancholy as she took her husband’s hand. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it, before giving her a reassuring smile.

Then the Trumps walked the Obamas the few short steps across the rain-soaked paving to the helicopter. Moments after former vice-president Joe Biden and his wife Jill got into a limousine to take them to the railway station so they could return to Delaware, the time arrived for the Obamas to board.

Barack Obama kissed Melania Trump on the cheek and Donald Trump kissed Michelle Obama, and murmured something in her ear. Then they broke the embraces and Michelle climbed into the helicopter with Barack Obama behind her. He stopped briefly at the top of the steps to wave twice, smiling, then ducked inside and the door was shut.

The Trumps retreated halfway up the steps of the Capitol to stand with the Pences as the helicopter lifted into grey skies and flew over Washington towards the nearby air force base known as Joint Base Andrews, where the former president and first lady would be reunited with their daughters Malia and Sasha in preparation for the final getaway.

At Andrews, the former president said farewell to staff and then the Obamas boarded a jumbo jet which, although familiar the world over as Air Force One, is only called that when a sitting president is aboard.

The now-former first family have planned a sunshine holiday in Palm Springs, California. No doubt, the golf course will feature.

The presidential plane set its nose to the west, with a chance for the Obamas to sit back and relax – no more pre-dawn briefings to come.

In a farewell interview on CBS, Obama had said: “Well, here’s one thing is, I’m not setting my alarm. That, I’m certain of. That I am absolutely positive of. I’m going to spend time with Michelle.

“And, you know, we got some catching up to do. We’ve both been busy.”

– (Guardian service)