Farewell addresses offer outgoing presidents a special opportunity, not only to reflect on their tenure, but to look ahead to future challenges. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, famously used his farewell address to warn Americans about the dangers of the “military industrial complex.”Last night in Chicago, President Obama spoke only briefly about his many accomplishments, instead investing the bulk of his time on issuing a warning of his own about the health and vibrancy of American democracy.About 12 hours later, his successor appeared behind a podium – and proceeded to prove that Obama’s fears are well grounded.Obama’s farewell address included a variety of messages and themes, but what Americans saw was a leader who seemed eager to credit his fellow citizens and encourage them to keep moving the country forward.
“You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started. […]“I do have one final ask of you as your president – the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe – not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.”
These comments – a leader crediting his supporters instead of himself – came to mind during Donald Trump’s press conference this morning. At one point, for example, the president-elect said he wants recognition for having effectively been a freelance tech consultant during the presidential campaign: “We were told that they were trying to hack [Republicans], but they weren’t able to hack. And I think I get some credit because I told Reince, and Reince did a phenomenal job, but I said I want strong hacking defense [on RNC computers].”The idea that Trump actually gave the RNC advice about cyber-security is very hard to believe, but what struck me as significant about this throwaway line is the president-elect’s preoccupation with self-aggrandizing claims.The result was a pair of bookend speeches in which Americans saw two very different kinds of leaders. One urged the electorate to keep believing in the core strengths of our political system; one made those appeals quite difficult to accept.Last night, for example, Obama celebrated “our nation’s call to citizenship,” and the collective demands of our democracy: “It needs you, not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full div of a lifetime.”This morning, Trump held a press conference in which he not only asked for credit for the RNC security software, but also made claims such as, “Nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had. You know that. You don’t like to report that, but that’s OK.”Obama emphasized the importance of citizenship. Trump emphasized how impressed he is with his own awesomeness.Granted, there are important differences between a farewell address and a press conference. Obama had a prepared text, while Trump was answering reporters’ questions.Nevertheless, the differences between the two men that emerged from these competing events were breathtaking in their scope. Even looking past the settings and substantive disagreements between Trump and Obama, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the gap between the two solely in tone and decency.At one point last night, the president declared, “In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts – without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter – then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.”About 12 hours later, the common baseline of facts was hard to find, as the president-elect spoke incoherently about a variety of subjects he did not appear to understand at even a rudimentary level.About a year ago, David Axelrod said, “Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have.”I watched Obama’s farewell address and Trump’s press conference. A variety of words come to mind, but “replica” isn’t one of them.