White House

On an often-ugly Inauguration Day, Trump and Obama are cordial

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama pose with President-elect Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, at the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama pose with President-elect Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, at the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. AP

The most reassuring, and ultimately significant image from Friday’s otherwise gloomy, often ugly, Inauguration Day: Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama never stopped talking to each other.

As they walked into the White House in the morning to have coffee, they smiled broadly. The two presidents and their wives stayed inside for nearly an hour, longer than had been planned, and emerged still chattering. After Trump was sworn in and Obama started to board the helicopter in front of the Capitol, they were still talking.

It was a cordial, even serene reminder that despite the day’s subdued, often tense mood, the peaceful transition of power was transcendent. Both men seemed to appreciate the history, as the nation’s first black president, the young avatar of hope and change who unabashedly championed the rights of gays, immigrants, women and minorities, left office.

In his place is a 70-year-old Manhattan billionaire who has proposed a Cabinet where 13 of the 15 selections for the traditional jobs are white, who won 8 percent of the black vote and 28 percent of the Latino vote. Trump enters office daring to declare “America first,” a slogan adopted by an influential isolationist, often anti-Semitic organization before World War II.

It was a reminder of the stark change from Obama to Trump, and during such times of abrupt change, Inauguration Day has not always been pleasant.

It’s said that Herbert Hoover, dour and rejected as the Great Depression deepened, all but ignored Franklin Roosevelt as they rode to the inaugural in 1933. President Jimmy Carter was said to have spent two sleepless days and nights trying to free the Iran hostages just before he left office in 1981. The hostages were freed minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in.

This time the strains were political. Trump, the first president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 to win on his first try to elective office, triumphed by pledging to end politics as usual, to dramatically change the way Obama had done business.

From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.

President Donald Trump in his inaugural address

The darker symbols seemed pervasive Friday. With Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter sitting nearby, Trump offered a speech traditionally used for healing to charge that “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”

Protesters shouted as Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for unity. Rival protesters could be heard clearly as Trump took the oath of office. The first raindrops fell at the exact moment Trump began speaking a few minutes later. Michelle Obama maintained a serious, even bored look throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Trump, looking over the city where he would now live, work and dominate, stood in front of dozens of the nation’s most prominent political figures – including vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – and said “politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed,” even though the economy is booming.

He kept raising his right hand with that now-familiar three-finger gesture when he pledged “We will bring back our borders.” He was almost shouting when he promised, “I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never ever let you down.” Then he stepped back from the podium as the applause swelled.

The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.

Trump in his inaugural address

But for all the tough talk, there were quieter reminders that Washington’s messy system can work. Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist firebrand, was speaking with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who’s as fiercely conservative as Sanders is liberal.

Schumer gave an upbeat speech just before Trump came to the podium. “We are all exceptional in our commonly held, yet fierce devotion to our country,” he said.

The officials went back inside the Capitol not angry, not defiant, but calmly ready to get back to work. Politicians do have a way of finding light in the gloom.

Look at it this way, said the Rev. Franklin Graham, who gave one of the closing benedictions.

“In the Bible, rain is a sign of God's blessing,” he said, “and it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid