WASHINGTON — The outgoing president somberly ruminated about the fragility of democracy and earnestly implored Americans to reject corrosive political dialogue. Fourteen hours later, the incoming president staged a defiant and frenetic news conference at his gilded New York City tower, dismissing critics, insulting reporters and likening the country’s intelligence officers to Nazis.
President Barack Obama’s farewell address in his hometown of Chicago and President-elect Donald Trump’s news conference the next morning offered a study in presidential whiplash, giving the country a striking look at how the White House will change this week.
“Historians are going to look at this period of Obama’s farewell and Trump’s press conference — they’re almost companion pieces in different styles,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “Everyone says that Obama and Trump are 180 degrees different and you can see why.”
The difference in ideology, of course, has been no secret. Trump campaigned on undoing nearly all of Obama’s major policies. But the back-to-back moments in the spotlight illuminated differences in tone and style that left little doubt Americans face a change unlike any in recent memory. It’s a coming shift — from reserved to aggressive, from controlled to wildly unpredictable, from cautious to unfiltered — that left some Americans pining for the Obama era before it had officially ended, and others embracing as refreshing an incoming president far less concerned with conforming to past notions of what is “presidential.”
“They say it’s not presidential to call up these massive leaders of business,” Trump told a crowd in Indianapolis in December after he negotiated a deal with an air-conditioning company to keep jobs in the state, a move many economists derided as unworkable national economic policy. “I think it’s very presidential. And if it’s not presidential, that’s OK. That’s OK. Because I actually like doing it.”
For weeks, voters have wondered if Trump would adjust his improvisational style to conform to the rigid and weighty responsibilities of the White House. Past presidents have described walking into the Oval Office for the first time as president as a sobering experience that makes clear their role as caretakers of the country’s historic legacy.
But in the weeks since his surprise victory, Trump has shown few signs of that transformation. Already, his early actions have broken decades of diplomatic protocol, tested long-standing ethics rules, flouted convention on press access, and continued his combative, deeply personal style of attack on Twitter and in person.
At his press conference last week, he suggested leaks from the country’s intelligence agencies were “disgraceful” and likened the behavior to actions by “Nazi Germany.” He also battled with individual reporters — calling a CNN correspondent “rude” and “terrible,” and derided the network as “fake news.”
Obama included media criticism in his speech as well, though in his own way.
“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there,” Obama said.
Brinkley, the presidential historian, noted that the shift from Obama to Trump isn’t the first time Americans have faced a major change in the presidency. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address in January 1961 was aired on television in black-and-white while the inaugural parade of President John F. Kennedy a few days later was broadcast in color for the first time by NBC, providing a symbolic generational shift from the black-and-white 1950s to the technicolor 1960s.
“That is child’s play compared to the stark differences of the cerebral Obama being replaced by the in-your-face Trump,” he said.
Trump’s eagerness to shred the unwritten rules of presidential communication makes his news conferences more lively, if somewhat chaotic. Trump dropped a series of personnel and policy news almost in passing, naming his nominee for the Department of Veterans Affairs, revealing the timing of the announcement of his Supreme Court nominee and offering half-formed plans for repealing the health care law.
In another break from protocol, Trump refused to release his tax returns and argued that his victory showed that Americans don’t care about the issue. “You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, OK? They’re the only ones who ask,” he said.
Trump is betting both that Americans are craving that sort of change and that there are few political drawbacks to his disrupter approach to the presidency. It’s far too soon to test that theory.
He spoke dismissively about South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former Republican primary rival who is now in position to hold up Trump’s legislative plans in Congress.
Obama, in his farewell address in Chicago, was true to his calibrated approach. He thanked Americans for making him “a better president” and a “better man” and included his trademark oratory that clearly aimed for history.
He made only one reference to Trump and gently pushed back when the crowd began to boo at the mention of the incoming president. “No, no, no, no, no,” Obama said. The “hallmark” of the nation’s democracy was “the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next,” he said.