Obama visits Bush at White House for private chat

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 10, 2008 

WASHINGTON — President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama, who was visiting the Oval Office for the first time, conducted cordial, wide-ranging talks Monday on economic and national security issues, but spokeswomen had little to say afterward.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino described the sessions as "good, constructive, relaxed and friendly," while Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the two men engaged in "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."

They wouldn't go any further. "Since it was a private meeting," Perino said, "the White House will decline to comment on specifics," except to say that Bush "pledged a smooth transition to the next administration."

The meeting less than a week after Obama decisively beat Republican John McCain was conducted with little fanfare. Obama arrived for the early afternoon meeting 11 minutes early, and he and Bush greeted each other with smiles and a handshake.

They walked along the colonnade adjacent to the Rose Garden and waved, their only public appearance together. They met for an hour and five minutes, then toured the private residence and resumed talking briefly in the Oval Office.

The president and president-elect discussed the economic stimulus package Congress may consider as soon as next week. Obama has supported a package; Bush has been reluctant. They also talked about problems in the auto industry and housing foreclosures, but neither the White House nor Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs offered no details.

The two men met alone, without aides or note-takers. Obama during the campaign had talked about Bush's "failed policies," but Gibbs said, "I don't think he tried that line out again to see how it would work…obviously there's a time for politics. The election's over. Now it's a time for governing."

He said Obama would not meet with foreign leaders coming to the United States later this week fo the economic summit, though it was possible others associated with Obama could.

"He's very interested and thought it was very good to have the meeting. But in a phrase you'll hear in exceedingly large numbers of times between now and the 20th of January, there's only one president at a time," Gibbs said.

While they talked, first lady Laura Bush gave Michelle Obama a tour of the White House that Cutter said "focused primarily on the private residence of the historic home."

They then went to the West Sitting Hall and discussed raising daughters at the White House. First daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush, twins who are now 26 years old, were about the ages of Obama daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, when they visited their grandfather, George H.W. Bush, during his presidency.

President Bush conducted his own tour of the living quarters for Obama, including the office he uses, the Lincoln bedroom and the bedrooms for the Obama daughters.

The Bush and Obama camps, as well as presidential scholars, painted the meeting as important more for its symbolism than substance. The White House session between the president and his successor is coming far earlier in the transition process than usual.

"That's a product of the current financial crisis and the urgency of what else is going on now," said Michael Mezey, a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago.

It also came four days before Bush will host world leaders at a Washington economic summit. Although Obama has said that he won't get involved in policymaking before Jan. 20, analysts said that Bush needed to hear the president-elect's thoughts, particularly if international leaders asked about differences between the two.

The meeting also sends a signal that those leaders shouldn't wait for Obama to undo the financial-rescue plans of the past few months.

"This shows that there isn't a lot of tension between President Bush and President-elect Obama," said John Fortier, a political analyst at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center.

As Perino noted, however, it's impossible to know the dynamics of the two leaders' private meeting.

"I don't think any of us can understand what it's like between the two people," she said, "who are now going to be in a very small club, who understand what it's like to be the commander in chief."

While Bush and Obama met, top staffers conferred separately. Michelle Obama, who flew to Washington in a separate plane, met with the White House chief usher, Stephen Rochon. She also visited Georgetown Day School's middle and lower school campus and met with its teachers and staff.

Georgetown Day is a private school in northwest Washington. The Obama children have been attending a private school in Chicago.

(Steven Thomma contributed to this story.)

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