The last weeks of a U.S. presidential administration have rarely been this bittersweet, but President Obama's final press conference proved exactly why he'll go down as a hero in the history books. Steadfast and optimistic until the end, Obama stayed focused on his presidential duties and demonstrated the measured leadership that defined his White House tenure during his last showdown with reporters. "Having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest. It makes us work harder," he explained in his speech, which lasted less than ten minutes before the president began taking questions.
"Let me start off by saying I was sorely tempted to wear a tan suit today," he joked as he opened the speech. He also noted that he was thinking of George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush, both of whom are in hospital. "They are as fine a couple as we know and so we want to send our prayers," he said.
While thanking the press for their tireless work during his eight years in office, Obama had a not-so-subtle message for his successor, Donald Trump. He noted that the country "doesn’t work if we don’t have a well-informed citizenry … Our democracy needs you.” He stressed the importance of a free press, and noted that the press had only pushed him to be more effective, even when he had resisted the kind of stories that were written.
"My hope is that you will continue with the same tenacity that you showed us," he added of the next administration.
President-elect Donald Trump, by contrast, yelled "FAKE NEWS" at a CNN reporter at his first news conference after becoming president-elect, and refused to take questions from BuzzFeed News. Trump has had a notoriously fiery relationship with the press, and described the media as being in the pocket of Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 election cycle.
Trump has also openly considered changing libel laws to make it easier to sue the press, although he has not yet confirmed whether he would take steps towards that as president. He will be inaugurated in two days' time.
The conference occurred the day after one of the biggest news stories of Obama's entire presidency, the commutation of Chelsea Manning's prison sentence for espionage. Facing ire from the U.S. intelligence community and his own Secretary of Defense, Obama reduced Manning's sentence from 35 years down to little more than time served — she will now be released May 17 after having been imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth since 2011. "Chelsea Manning has served a tough sentence," the president said. "The sentence she received was very disproportionate to other leakers."
Though some argue that Manning violated state secrets and deserved the full extent of the sentence she received, others see Obama's actions as a final example of the compassionate policy that has largely defined his presidency. Obama is a man who believes in second chances, and his decision to commute Manning's sentence shows that he believed she deserved one too. "I feel very comfortable that justice has been served," he concluded.
Throughout the press avail, Obama maintained a spirit of hope reminiscent of the freshman senator who surprised and inspired the nation with his promise of change. It's difficult to say if, and somewhat disheartening to think that, Obama's optimism is really a belief in Donald Trump's ability to be president. But what he has said since the very beginning of his rise to the presidency is that he believes in the American people, and that wouldn't change no matter who is president. His final press conference marks the end of a historic presidency and the beginning of one that could be equally historic in less positive ways, but as Obama's story reminds everyone, the American people can always choose something new and better when the time comes again.