Ksenija Pavlovic reflects on the last press conference of the outgoing President, Barack Obama. Very much unlike the President, she goes off-script.
And so it happened. In the small, stuffy, and swarming White House briefing room, the final press conference of the President of the United States, Barack Obama. This time, no one of the journalists fainted. There were no unexpected questions, as everything was exactly as it should be in the government building: scripted and rehearsed. The President was calling out the names of the journalists from the annotated notepad, not even trying to hide that he had anticipated in advance each and every question he would be asked on-the-record. It is his legacy at stake, after all, and Barack Obama made sure that each of his words would count while the press corps was watching.
The last public address of the most powerful person in the world was nothing like last week’s press conference of the incoming President Donald J. Trump, who went off script and directly into crossfire with the most powerful of the media. Trump is the one who crashes and burns. Obama is the one who thinks well before he talks in public. I am not sure which one is better, as it comes down to the optics and no disruption of the status quo, but who cares about the disruption of the status quo in D.C., the capital of red tape and dark blue suits? It’s like standing in the middle of a well-written scene authored by Shonda Rhimes, emotion, and politics, good quality television for the Emmys.
Barack Obama had eight long years to learn to behave and talk like the leader of the free world and to make it sound natural and full of substance. To be clear, Obama has a lot of substance and he comes off as someone you can straight away engage with in a deep political conversation, quoting good books and scholars, except that you can’t ask him any questions of your own. He does not raise his voice, he is soft and on point, at times emotional. He is Barack Obama. The man who gave Americans hope in 2008.
The White House briefing room he is speaking to is almost like an extended stage, with its very own playbook of Who is Who in the power press corps circle, and Obama is making sure to acknowledge his relationship with those who wrote the headlines in the past eight years.
“Some of you have been covering me for a long time — folks like Christi and Win. Some of you I’ve just gotten to know. We have traveled the world together. We’ve hit a few singles, a few doubles together. I’ve offered advice that I thought was pretty sound, like “don’t do stupid…stuff.” (Laughter.) And even when you complained about my long answers, I just want you to know that the only reason they were long was because you asked six-part questions.But I have enjoyed working with all of you. That does not, of course, mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed. But that’s the point of this relationship. “
But what is really the point of any relationship between the government and the press corps? The Briefing room was last modernized in 2007 and it was designed to accommodate only 49 members of the press, but the world has changed drastically since then. Media is rapidly growing, so there is a lot riding on the new administration, namely, how serious it is about shaking up the status quo on all the societal levels, media structures being one of them.
It is interesting that for the past eight years, and after the last incident of the female reporter almost fainting in the briefing room, Obama, who dedicated his last speech to highlight his good relationship with the media, did not come up with the idea of moving the briefing room to some more spacious space on the White House compound. We live in the 21st century America, the country of freeman and innovation, why couldn’t the White House briefing room be shaken up, unless its aim is to serve only the 49 seats with the engraved corporations’ names?
Where are we, and where are we heading? I ask myself as I stand next to the French journalist Sonia, while the Russian journalist of TASS interrupts Obama mid-sentence, repeating out loud: “A question from Russia”. It’s like Federico Fellini’s incisive social critique, or even Lars Von Trier, whom I interviewed once in Cannes, going completely off script, with the two realities happening at the same time in this iconic, yet airless, White House briefing room on the last day in the limelight of the American president. Next to the Russian journalist is a lady in her seventies, a photographer on crutches who is standing on some shaky scale. How about equality of the media, President Obama, you think someone would ask, but it is his last press conference and we have some more serious issues to attend to like immigration, Cuba, Chelsea Manning, American values, hope and resilience. It’s script, script, and nothing but the script, but it is damn good script, and you gotta love the Obama.
I am not going to repeat what has been said in the conference nor I am going to analyze in more depth the policy components as well as the implications of what has been said. You always know where you stand with Barack Obama. The President was focused on driving the point home when it comes to his legacy in an elegant, savvy, and substantial way. He made a clear point that it is not true that the things under his presidency got worse but that in fact “they got better”. He explained that the sanctions to Russia were not imposed because of the nuclear weapons but because of Ukraine. He clarified his motivation behind the decision to pardon Chelsea Manning who was charged with espionage, highlighting at the same time that his decision does not contradict his stand on the Wikileaks.
I am sure everyone can read the White House official press release and revisit the last conference. But what one cannot either find out or revisit is what has been felt in that room. How it felt to stand in front of the man who for the past eight years was making decisions in the name of all Americans.
It’s the end of an era and the President tried to do what he does best: give hope to the American nation and tell everyone how everything is going to be okay. “There’s no such thing as the end of the world and under the incoming President Donald J. Trump, America will be just fine.” Thus spoke Obama.