What the President Does on the Last Day in Office

US President Barack Obama shake hands with President-elect Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama shake hands with President-elect Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images

The peaceful transition of power from one United States president and his administration to another is one of the hallmarks of American democracy.

And much of the public's and media's attention on January 20th every four years rightly focuses on the incoming president taking the Oath of Office and the challenges that lie ahead.

But what does the outgoing president do on his last day in office?

Here's a look at five things almost every president does just before leaving the White House.

1. Issues a Pardon or Two 

Some presidents show up at the White House bright and early for a ceremonial last walk through the historic building and to wish their staff well. Others show up and get to work issuing pardons.

President Bill Clinton used his last day in office, for example, to pardon 141 people including Marc Rich, a billionaire who had been indicted on charges of defrauding the Internal Revenue Service, mail fraud, tax evasion, racketeering, defrauding the U.S. Treasury and trading with the enemy.

President George W. Bush also issued a couple of pardons in the last hours of his presidency. They erased the prison sentences of two border patrol agents convicted of shooting a drug suspect.

President Barack Obama departed the White House on January 20, 2017, after pardoning 64 individuals and commuting the sentences of 209 more—109 of whom faced life sentences. The commutations included former U.S. Army Private First Class Chelsea Manning, who had been convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

2. Welcomes the Incoming President

President-elect Donald Trump (2ndR),and his wife Melania Trump (2ndL), are greeted by President Barack Obama and his wife first lady Michelle Obama at the White House on January 20, 2017.
President-elect Donald Trump (2ndR),and his wife Melania Trump (2ndL), are greeted by President Barack Obama and his wife first lady Michelle Obama at the White House on January 20, 2017. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Recent presidents have hosted their eventual successors on the last day in office. On Jan. 20, 2009, President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush hosted President-Elect Barack Obama and his wife, as well as Vice President-Elect Joe Biden, for coffee in the Blue Room of the White House before the noon inauguration. The president and his successor then traveled together to the Capitol in a limousine for the inauguration.

Keeping the tradition alive, outgoing President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama spent 45 minutes sharing tea and coffee with president-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania. Under the North Portico of the White House, Melania Trump presented Michelle Obama with a blue Tiffany gift box before the entire party rode together in the same limousine to Capitol Hill for Trump’s swearing-in ceremony.

3. Leaves a Note for the New President

It's become a ritual for the outgoing president to leave a note for the incoming president. In January 2009, for example, outgoing President George W. Bush wished incoming President Barack Obama well on the "fabulous new chapter" he was about to begin in his life, Bush aides told The Associated Press at the time. The note was tucked into a drawer of Obama's Oval Office desk.

In his note to incoming President Donald Trump, President Barack Obama wrote in part, “Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure,” adding “…we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It's up to us to do everything we can to build more ladders of success for every child and family that's willing to work hard.”

4. Attends the Inauguration of the Incoming President

The outgoing president and vice president attend the swearing-in and inauguration of the new president and then are escorted from the Capitol by their successors. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies describes the outgoing president's department as being relatively anti-climatic and unceremonious.

The 1889 Handbook of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonies at Washington described the event this way: 

"His departure from the Capital is attended with no ceremony, other than the presence of the members of his late Cabinet and a few officials and personal friends. The President leaves the Capital as soon as practicable after the inauguration of his successor."

5. Takes a Helicopter Ride Out of Washington

It's been customary since 1977, when Gerald Ford was leaving office, for the president to be flown from the Capitol grounds via Marine One to Andrews Air Force Base for a flight back to his hometown. One of the most memorable anecdotes about such a trip came from Ronald Reagan's ceremonial flight around Washington on Jan. 20, 1989, after he left office.

Ken Duberstein, Reagan's chief of staff, told a newspaper reporter years later:

"As we hovered for a second over the White House, Reagan looked down through the window, patted Nancy on her knee and said, 'Look, dear, theres our little bungalow.' Everybody broke down in tears, sobbing."
Updated by Robert Longley