Obama’s Speech and Trump’s Press Conference

After the last two days — Tuesday, Jan. 10, and Wednesday, Jan. 11 — it would be hard to find many people who wouldn’t agree with the notion that there are times when there is such a thing as too much news.

Americans might be forgiven if they felt themselves coming down with a case of whiplash. Many are exhausted, drained from information overload and the frustrating effort of trying to sort things out.

At the core were two highly anticipated and highly contrasting events.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama, with only 10 days left in his presidency, traveled to Chicago, the city of his political birth and youth, to give a measured and emotional farewell speech before a crowd of thousands.

On Wednesday, with only nine days left until his inauguration, an angry, assertive and blustering President-elect Donald Trump held a rare — and often combative and highly charged — press conference at Trump Tower in the midst of a media storm over the surfacing of classified documents that suggested Russia intelligence services were in the possession of damaging information about him. The news, which had surfaced Tuesday night, was immediately labeled “fake news” by Trump.

In tone and style, the two events could not have been more different. In their conduct and use of language and emphasis, the events also spoke to the stark contrast between the president and the president-to-be. It would have been hard to imagine, for instance, Donald Trump giving the kind of speech — at times soaring, at times searing, at times sorrowful — that President Obama gave. Conversely, it would have been hard to imagine the president presiding over a press conference the way the president-elect did: at turns stern, chiding, argumentative, like a bombastic maestro, praising here, punishing there, a little information here, a little braggadocio there.

Over the two days, there was considerable other news to be heard and felt; for one thing, the two events came during the course of hearings on Capitol Hill on the men and women nominated by Trump to be in his Cabinet.

Chief among those hearings, and arguably the two most controversial, involved Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), nominated for Attorney General, and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated for Secretary of State. These sometimes seemed like an anxious, questioning Greek chorus in the background, echoing themes and issues dealt with by the president and president-elect in different ways.

The events in Chicago and New York both appeared to have been carefully staged, but also featured spontaneous eruptions. The Obama family was there in Chicago to be showered with love and credit by Obama, as was Vice President Joe Biden, whom the president praised for a friendship that blossomed over the course of eight years of working together (today, Jan. 12, we learned that Biden had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom). There were shouts of “four more years” from the noisy crowd.

The speech had its triumphant notes, some of them bittersweet. Even as Obama noted that the Affordable Care Act had insured millions who were not insured before, Republican legislators and Trump were working to dismantle it. He spoke of gay marriage, of Osama bin Laden, of voting rights and peace efforts and the American military draw-down.

But he also struck a mournful and frustrated tone about the growing and continuing divisiveness and coarseness in America’s political life — divisions between black and white, between and among minorities, between economic classes. “We must learn to listen,” he said, speaking, it seemed, to whites suspicious of immigrants and blacks suspicious of working-class whites.

Divisiveness and suspicion — in this case, between Trump and the media and the intelligence services — was on full display at the Trump press conference, where he, too, was surrounded by family.

While the occasion was a relatively detailed announcement that he would no longer be running the Trump companies, ceding the operations to his two sons, Eric and Donald Jr. (“They won’t say a word about it to me”), the first volleys were a full-throated denial of scurrilous and unchecked assertions found in the materials which had been made public by BuzzFeed and CNN. Calling the reports “fake news” and “garbage,” he criticized both news organizations while praising others for not running them.

Things got heated when a CNN reporter apparently tried to get in a question. Trump shook his head, saying: “You’re fake news. Sit down and be quiet. You’re not getting a question.”

Trump also more or less acknowledged that Russia might indeed have been behind the hacks against the DNC and tried to interfere with the election, although the acknowledgment was cursory at best. “If Russia likes me, that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing,” he said later. He also said he would be sending a name for the Supreme Court vacancy to Congress very soon — maybe in two or three weeks — and would repeal Obamacare quickly — “within weeks, maybe days, maybe hours.” He said he would not release his tax returns, and that “Only the press is interested in that, not the people.”

While he said he was taking himself out of his own business, he also insisted that he could — by law — continue to be oversee it as president. “I could do that, run the government and run my business and I would be very good at it,” he said.

On stage — and it seemed more like a stage than a venue for a news conference — was Trump the way we’ve come to know him: angry, seductive, bragging a lot, complaining, accusatory, a supremely confident ringmaster in control of the proceedings (if not always of himself).

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