By Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Barack Obama visited the White House yesterday for a long and cordial meeting with the man he will succeed, setting aside two years of withering criticism of President Bush's record to discuss the economy and tour the presidential living quarters.
As hundreds of well-wishers crowded the wrought-iron fence outside, the president-elect and his wife, Michelle, joined Bush and first lady Laura Bush for a traditional visit that was short on substance but long on symbolism. The women hugged, the men shook hands and all four posed for photographers.
Meeting without aides in the Oval Office, Bush and Obama talked primarily about the economy, as Obama pressed his case for rapid passage of a new economic stimulus package and help for the automobile industry, aides said. Then the pair took a stroll through the residence before returning to the West Wing. Their wives embarked on their own tour of the building that will soon be home to the Obamas and their daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.
The meeting, while largely ceremonial, highlighted the rift in economic policy between the two men. Obama has pledged to make enactment of a stimulus package his first action as president if Bush balks during his last few weeks in office. Meanwhile, despite pleas from the auto industry and others, Bush aides have linked support for a broader stimulus bill to Democratic backing of free-trade agreements Bush backs.
Their discussion came after two years of sharp, if indirect, skirmishing between Bush and his Democratic successor, whose candidacy was built as a rebuke to the Republican administration. Obama condemned Bush's "failed policies" and said John McCain, the GOP nominee, would represent "another four years" of the unpopular commander in chief. Bush once suggested that Obama was naive on Iraq and said at another point: "He's got a long way to go to be president."
But the two couples were all smiles yesterday, with no evidence of tension. Stephanie Cutter, an Obama spokeswoman, said that the Obamas were "warmly welcomed" and that the Oval Office meeting was "productive and friendly."
"They had a broad discussion about the importance of working together throughout the transition of government in light of the nation's many critical economic and security challenges," she said. "President-elect Obama thanked President Bush for his commitment to a smooth transition, and for his and first lady Laura Bush's gracious hospitality in welcoming the Obamas to the White House."
Bush similarly described the meeting as "good, constructive, relaxed and friendly," according to a summary by Dana Perino, the White House press secretary. The two discussed world and domestic affairs, and Bush showed Obama the presidential office, the Lincoln Bedroom and the bedrooms for the Obamas' daughters, she added.
"The president enjoyed his visit with the president-elect, and he again pledged a smooth transition to the next administration," Perino said.
Obama flew from Chicago in a chartered Boeing Super 80. The president-elect sat in a regular first-class seat for the one-hour and 17-minute trip, walking back to coach briefly to talk to aides.
The couple traveled to the White House in a presidential-style limousine -- another switch from the sport-utility vehicles that were common during the campaign. Michelle Obama also spent time yesterday scouting out schools for the couple's daughters, according to sources familiar with her plans.
Obama's return to Chicago produced some moments of minor drama for accompanying journalists. First, the president-elect went into a private 40-minute meeting at Reagan National Airport with people unknown to them. Then, after boarding his plane, reporters were able to overhear his conversation as he talked on a cellphone.
"I am not going to be spending too much time in Washington over the next several weeks," he said, adding that he did not want to "go lurching so far in one direction" and wanted to come up with "some good, solid, sensible options."
The topic of the remarks was not known, and Obama turned away after a staff member intervened.
Obama is moving rapidly to undo some of Bush's signature initiatives while also tackling the economic crisis and other pressing issues. His transition chief, John D. Podesta, said over the weekend that Obama may use executive orders to ease restrictions on stem cell research, change interrogation policies that Democrats oppose and slow plans for offshore oil drilling. In the longer term, Obama has pledged to end the Iraq war, reverse almost a decade of Bush economic policy and take a dramatically different approach toward health care and social policy.
Obama aides said the transition team has begun to review all of Bush's executive orders and will move forward with decisions once Cabinet secretaries have been chosen. The men did not discuss those issues at the meeting yesterday, Obama aides said.
The meeting focused on the economy, and that is what aides say will be among Obama's top priorities once he moves into the White House on Jan. 20. The president-elect has promised a quick focus on middle-class tax cuts, health care and energy independence.
Bush and Obama have emphasized cordiality since Election Day, focusing on the need for a smooth transition and, in Bush's case, hailing the historic event of Obama becoming the nation's first African American president. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs called it "a bit of a momentous day" and said that Obama commented on the Oval Office. "I don't know that I would characterize him as awestruck. What he said to me is it's a really nice office," Gibbs said.
Obama had never set foot in the Oval Office before yesterday and has had only a handful of direct interactions with Bush, most recently during a September meeting on the economic crisis. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama describes one of his earliest encounters with Bush, at a 2005 White House event for new lawmakers, when Obama, then a newly elected senator from Illinois, says Bush warned him that people from both parties will start "gunnin' for ya."
"Everybody'll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean?" Bush said, according to Obama's account. "So watch yourself."
Obama's meeting with Bush was the latest in a 100-year tradition that has produced symbolic moments as political pasts met political futures.
In 2000, Bush met President Bill Clinton one week after the Supreme Court declared the Texas governor the winner of the closest presidential election in U.S. history. At the meeting, the pair discussed foreign challenges and economic good times. Clinton told reporters that his advice was to "get a good team, and do what he thinks is right."
Eight years earlier, it was President George H.W. Bush who was giving Clinton advice. They met for almost two hours, discussing the then-hot spots of Bosnia and Somalia, but, as is the tradition, took no questions from reporters after the meeting.
Stephen Hess, a presidential historian, said the potential for tension between Bush and Obama was great after last week's election. The economic crisis gave Obama the perfect excuse to assert his authority even before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. But Obama publicly rejected that notion Friday, declaring that the United States has "only one president at a time" and signaling that he will not attend a global economic summit on Saturday.
Bush offered his own olive branch by pledging "complete cooperation" and calling Obama's election "especially uplifting" for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights.
Hess called yesterday's visit a "symbolic moment" of the change to come. "When he walks out of the White House, he really is the president-elect," he said of Obama, adding: "It's part of the movement of power, the movement of democracy."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.