Last week, President Obama gave a Memorial Day speech as president for the last time. A few weeks earlier, Miami Democrats sent out invitations for a Democratic fundraiser, noting, "This may be the last time President Obama visits Miami as a sitting President, making it a truly special event." When speaking at his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama mentioned that it was his last dinner in pretty much his first sentence. The 2016 election is his "last campaign." Or wait, no, it's his "last stand." Either way, it won’t begin in earnest until his last presidential vacation.
It’s the president’s Goodnight Moon — a series of lasts that is weirdly long-lasting, like if that beloved bedtime story stretched to Proustian length and complexity. There are still months to go until Obama’s lame-duck lap, and already everything he touches is turned into a sepia-toned nostalgia trip. It's almost amusing when you look at them all together. He stops by the first place he visited as president for the last time. He takes a last lap, a last play, a last shot, a last ride. Good-night, pardoned turkey. Good-night, senators being jerky.
But there’s a reason Goodnight Moon is only a few pages long. This routine has to get tiring, especially when it’s already been going on for years and you still have to wait many months to find out who the heck is going to replace you. The literal day after the 2012 campaign ended, coverage of the next election began, threatening to put Obama on the back burner for the entire second half of his presidency. After this Tuesday’s primaries, when the latest plot point in America’s mystery-theater election is unveiled and we get closer to figuring out who our next president will be, the sonata of lasts is sure to crescendo.
This process of saying good-bye isn’t new; as Hamilton reminds us, presidents have been teaching us to TTFN for centuries. The New York Times remarked that Ronald Reagan was set to begin “a year of farewells” 11 months before the end of his presidency. Twenty years later, in June 2008, the paper noted that “the final days of George Bush’s presidency have never seemed more imminent.” A century earlier, news of Theodore Roosevelt’s last visit to church and last big party were saved for posterity.
The run-up to Obama’s series finale, however, feels especially protracted. We’ve been saying good-bye for so long that it seems to have changed the whole flavor of his presidency, turning his entire last year in office into a strange mash-up of a presidential election pregame and an “I Will Remember You” tribute video on YouTube that ensures every successive election is going to shrink the presidency that precedes it.
It isn’t all the election’s fault. It mostly is, though. It’s hard not to turn Obama’s life into a series of lasts and nostalgic looks at his greatest hits when electoral obsessiveness and partisan exhaustion over his policies has prevented him from doing much else, other than dutifully saying good-bye and talking about his legacy with people on his bucket list. He tried to nominate a new Supreme Court justice, but Republican senators argued that the end of his presidency was close enough to render his judgment inert. That nomination fight has slid into a stalemate, making coverage nearly nonexistent. Guantánamo is being slowly emptied of prisoners, and Obama says he still wants to close the detention facility, but progress is stalled; many legislators have proved resistant to moving the last remaining prisoners, most of whom haven’t ever been charged with a crime. Obama’s executive order on immigration is tied up in the court system and may never be implemented before the end of his presidency. His administration’s rules on power plants have been blocked.
We’re programmed as an electorate to care about politics the most when someone is promising to fix all our problems and painting futures to believe in. It was inevitable that voters would latch on to the next exciting campaign to promise those same things this year, instead of waiting to see whether the last person they believed in could follow through — as was assuming that most politicians would happily join them in pressing fast-forward. Obama may be leaving politics, but everyone else he works with wants to stick around, and that means thinking about the next election and the next government — and leaving those who are done with such simple needs to their legacies.
But even though presidential policy gets overshadowed by the coming election, Obama’s doings are still covered in minute detail, making the never-ending recurrence of lasts even more pronounced. Every day, the president does something for the last time, and most of the time it is chronicled by a story, a tweet, a picture — giving more fodder to those who would prefer to look at this last year in office as a good-bye montage instead of regular working hours.
As the parade of lasts continues to provide background music for the current presidential race, reminding us of what will eventually happen to whoever wins, the National Archives are getting ready to shuttle the records of all those lasts to Obama's future presidential library. In 2008, the National Archives reported that they had to move "approximately 75 million pages" of material from the Clinton White House, a record-breaking figure prompted by the existence of email and electronic records. When Obama's version of these documents are moved at the end of his presidency — the first to take place completely within a world of social media and intensified Internet obsessiveness — it is sure to be far more intense. The boxes and drives filled with those materials will be used to concoct the final draft of Obama’s presidency and to find the moments that actually mattered in this final year. Until then, the lasts continue, with some people praising the fact that this is almost over, and others deeply sad that Obama’s nearly done.
Oh, and a word of advice for whoever’s sworn in on January 20, 2017: Don’t get too antsy for your turn to begin. It's only four years until 2020, and your last first day as president is fast approaching.