USA Politics First Look

In last two days as president, Obama underscores parting messages

As the clock winds down on the Obama presidency, he sends a message of optimism and hope, while indicating the issues that might draw him back into the political fray.

US President Obama speaks during his last press conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 18, 2017.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters | Caption

“Yes, we can.”

These are the words which powered Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, and these are the words with which he closed his thank-you letter to the American people on Thursday.

The letter comes the day after President Obama's last press conference, as he emphasizes messages hope and engagement in his last hours before handing the White House over to President-elect Donald Trump. But living up to that hope will take work, he signaled, and, perhaps, the occasional involvement of a concerned former president.

"At my core, I think we're going to be OK. We just have to fight for it, we have to work for it and not take it for granted," he told reporters who gathered in the White House briefing room for his final press conference on Wednesday, adding, "This is not just a matter of 'no-drama Obama,' this is what I believe."

On the campaign trail for Hillary CLinton, Mr. Obama repeatedly warned against allowing Mr. Trump to become president. In the months since Trump’s surprise victory, however, he has tempered that criticism, pledging to work with Trump to assure a smooth transition, and speaking regularly with him by phone.

But differences remain, and Mr. Obama’s final press conference provided him with a podium to push back on some of the policy suggestions made by Trump in recent weeks. He objected to Trump’s idea of ending sanctions on Russia in exchange for reductions in the country’s nuclear power, for example, saying America should avoid confusing “why these sanctions have been imposed with a whole other set of issues.”

He expressed concern about the consequences of moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, suggesting that the move could intensify tensions in the region. He also defended decisions such as commuting US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence and ending a preferential immigration policy for Cubans.

The outgoing president also discussed the keeping press briefings in the White House, saying “It keeps us honest,” according to a New York Times transcript of the speech. This may have been a rebuke of the Trump team’s suggestion, which it has since withdrawn, of moving the press out of the West Wing in order to free up space.

Most cable news outlets – Trump’s preferred television viewing – carried the event live, perhaps making the conference another way for Obama to communicate with the president-elect, the Associated Press suggested.

Once he leaves the White House, the president indicated, he plans to take a step back from politics. He may have one more act left before leaving office, however: Officials indicated that he was planning to grant one final round of pardons and commutations before leaving office, with a focus on nonviolent drug offenders serving long prison sentences, the Associated Press reported.

And Obama was clear that he would speak out if he felt that American “core values” were being compromised.

“I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise. I’d put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country,” Obama said during the press conference, according to New York Times transcript.

In his letter to the American people, which appeared on Thursday, Obama called for Americans to likewise remain involved in the political life of their country.

“In your daily acts of citizenship, I’ve seen our future unfolding,” he wrote. “All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into that work – the joyous work of citizenship. Not just when there’s an election, not just when our own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.