All smiles and compliments, President-elect Obama and his wife, Michelle, called on President Bush and first lady Laura Bush Monday in a White House visit that was part political ritual, part practical introduction and a striking symbol of the historic transfer of power to come.
The president and Obama talked war and financial crisis. Laura Bush and Michelle Obama talked about raising daughters in the nation’s most famous house.
Then Obama flew back to Chicago to work on setting up the new administration that will take over on Jan. 20.
Mrs. Obama went out hunting a new school for the kids, visiting two of the capital city’s best-known private schools.
If first impressions matter, Obama and his wife displayed one similarity to the super-punctual Bushes, pulling up to the White House’s South Portico 11 minutes early. The couples traded warm and easy greetings in the crisp autumn sunshine, with the wives exchanging pleasantries about the fall hues each wore – Mrs. Bush in a brown dress and Mrs. Obama in a red one.
While Obama and Bush, in business suits, proceeded waving and smiling down the White House Colonnade for nearly two hours of private talks, Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush had their own agenda: talk of raising children in most unusual circumstances. Mrs. Bush conducted a tour of the living quarters of the historic mansion and made introductions to the army of residence staff who look after first families.
Michelle Obama had toured the White House before with daughters Malia, who is 10, and Sasha, who is 7. But the two women had never met.
The 43rd president and the man who will be the 44th – and first black – commander in chief met alone in the Oval Office, with no handlers or staff. It was Obama’s first time in the storied workspace, even though he had been to the White House previously for events.
Nether the Bushes nor the Obamas spoke to reporters, and details about their meetings were few.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said that Bush described the meeting as “constructive, relaxed and friendly,” covering problems at home and abroad, and that he personally pledged a smooth transition. Bush gave Obama a sneak peek at White House highlights, such as the Lincoln Bedroom and the president’s office in the residence, after their hour-plus in the Oval Office.
Obama transition spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the president-elect thanked Bush for both his hospitality and transition help. “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.
Such White House meetings have a history going back decades. They are discussions that can range wherever the two men choose, whether focused on specific issues, how best to make decisions, the extraordinary resources that accompany any American president, the special weight of the office or even the secrets about the building that few people are privy to. It’s also a chance to establish personal rapport between near-strangers, though that is by no means guaranteed.
Michelle Obama arrived in Washington before her husband and stayed awhile after left, checking out schools.
In the morning, she visited Georgetown Day School. Then in the late afternoon she toured Sidwell Friends School, which Chelsea Clinton attended when her parents were in the White House.
The Obamas’ children now attend a private school in Chicago.
At the White House, while Bush and Obama talked, parallel confabs went on all around the building.
Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten and Obama transition manager John Podesta, himself a former White House chief of staff under President Clinton, held their own talks after standing off to the side together in the Rose Garden watching their bosses walk by. Obama’s likely White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, got a glimpse of the West Wing digs he will probably occupy – including a fancy bank of television screens on one wall.
Outside, crowds built throughout the day with people pressing their noses through the fencing around the White House complex in hopes of getting a glimpse of the first family to be. Street vendors operating nearby were already stocked with Obama-related merchandise.
Obama traveled the streets of Washington and up the White House drive in a motorcade upgraded from campaign mode to full-blown presidential level. There were the two identical black, heavily armored limousines – one a decoy – like those Bush rides in, only without the seal or flying flags. There was also a hazardous materials truck, a communications vehicle and an ominous-looking, armed-to-the-teeth counter-assault team filling the seats of an open-windowed Suburban.
Obama’s staff, most in suits, remarked they had needed to buy “grown-up clothes” that better befitted a White House visit than the smart casual look they had adopted for the campaign plane. Even the entourage’s ever-cheerful luggage handler donned a coat and tie for the day, though he didn’t come along to the White House.
And there was one small but unmistakable sign that it will be Obama who will be in charge before too long: He put his left hand on Bush’s back as they went inside the building from Obama’s motorcade, as if he was guiding the president into his own house.
Later, as he sat on his plane waiting for takeoff, he was heard to say into his cell phone: “I’m not going to be spending too much time in Washington over the next several weeks.”
These White House sessions hare designed to put the presidency above politics, temporarily at least. This year’s took place less than a week after Election Day, giving less time than usual for raw campaign words to fade.
But both Bush and Obama have set a tone of graciousness and cooperation that has surprised – and pleased – many observers.
Obama has shown no inclination for gloating. And Bush has been notably generous in his comments since the election.
On a practical – and sober – level, Obama is taking office with the economy in deep turmoil and two wars that are far from won, among other problems.
Comity aside, there are plenty of tension points.
Bush and Obama met as the main transition news of the day was the Democratic team’s preparations to rescind many of the incumbent’s executive orders. Podesta said Obama’s aides were poring over all of them and will make such reversals among the new president’s first acts.
“We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set,” Podesta said, delivering a concrete rebuke of Bush only about 24 hours before the two men sat down together.