Obama relinquishes charge in rituals ‘as old as the nation’

21 Jan 2017


History will be the final judge of Barack Obama's presidency, but the 44th president got at least one endorsement Friday as he prepared to leave the White House. Chief Usher Angella Reid jokingly advised Obama that he could have his "security deposit back".

Reid then joined curator William Allman in presenting the president and Michelle Obama with two American flags: one that had flown over the White House on the first day of his presidency and another from his last. Reid also handed over a tall stack of paper towels from the washroom, complete with the gold presidential seal. Obama always joked with guests that they could have as many paper towels as they wanted.

 For a couple who embodied change when they entered the White House, the Obamas' last day there was one full on age-old conventions.

In a ceremony filled with private references, the Obamas thanked the residence staff for their service over the past eight years. Then they sat down for coffee and tea with the incoming president and first lady on the State Floor before escorting the Trumps to the US Capitol.

These rituals, as former White House social secretary Ann Stock put it, "are as old as the nation".

A presidency that began with a whistle-stop train trip and massive crowds ended much more quietly.

Before the Trumps pulled up at the White House on Friday, President Obama turned to his wife and kissed her on the cheek. She dusted his shoulders off.

Melania Trump presented a blue Tiffany & Co gift box tied with a white satin ribbon to Michelle Obama - who had given Laura Bush a present eight years ago - but there was no aide on hand to take it.

In a digital age where social media has become a primary avenue for channelling political outrage, even relatively innocuous moments like this quickly become fodder for public debate. Some Democrats took a photo of Michelle Obama, looking confused or uncomfortable with the Tiffany box, and quickly converted it into Internet memes aimed at conveying their own displeasure with the Trump inauguration.

The Obamas quietly navigated the rituals that marked their exit from official Washington. Barack Obama bounded over to shake hands with justices of Supreme Court who were also seated on the Capitol steps as they waited for President Trump's inauguration to begin. And he exchanged pats on the shoulder, and a few words, with the incoming president.

By the time the former president and first lady arrived at a massive hangar at Joint Base Andrews, where about 1,800 administration officials and supporters had gathered, he seemed more than ready to stop giving speeches.

"You know, Michelle and I have really been milking this goodbye thing, so it behoves me to be very brief," he began.

"No!" the crowd roared back.

Some other presidents have been visibly reluctant to leave town. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who accompanied Bill Clinton out of Washington 16 years ago, joked in an interview that "there must have been claw marks on the Oval Office" as he was pulled away from there.

On Friday, the men and women who had come to the base seemed to be looking for marching orders for the future. They sat in groups arranged largely by agencies - the Environmental Protection Agency in one section, Treasury in another. They broke into an impromptu rendition of the national anthem at one point, and former Health and Human Services Department employee Dominique Chamely held aloft a sign declaring: "Today may be my last day working at the Obama administration, but you know what? HOPE doesn't quit."

As the Obamas walked along holding hands toward the plane that would take them to Palm Springs, California, on vacation, former attorney general Eric Holder snapped a few photos and shook his head, almost in disbelief.

The Boeing 747, designated Special Air Mission 28000 instead of Air Force One for the day, took the couple and nine of their closest friends and former top aides across the country. Diverted because of weather conditions, the Obamas' plane landed out of the public eye, as the travellers craned their necks against the windows of the Palm Springs International Airport terminal in vain.

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