In a moment laden with symbolism and simmering tension, President-elect Barack Obama meets with President Bush today at the White House.
In addition to Obama and wife Michelle getting their own personal tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from the Bushes, the newly-elected 44th president will discuss the details of the transition with Bush.
Per the New York Times:
In a time-honored tradition of American democracy, Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, will receive a tour of their new home from Mr. Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush. Then the men will split off to begin the formal transfer of power, all the more urgent this year because of the financial crisis. Mr. Obama has said he expects a "substantive conversation between myself and the president."
Though the meeting has plenty of potential for tense moments - Obama spent hours on the campaign trail denouncing Bush's "failed policies" and Bush once praised Obama's primary rival, Hillary Clinton, as "more ready to be president" - Bush is said to have newfound respect for Obama's campaigning skills and appreciates the potential to gain some goodwill by being a gracious host, reports the Times:
"President Bush is a realist," said this friend, who spoke anonymously to disclose his private conversation with the president. "He has a way of coming to grips with things and moving on. The people have spoken."
For Mr. Bush, the meeting has a distinct upside: the chance to take the edge off his unpopularity. Democrats are already praising him as gracious for his post-election speech in the Rose Garden, where he said it would be a "stirring sight" to see the Obama family move into the White House. The meeting on Monday will give Mr. Bush an opportunity to produce lasting images of that graciousness.
Already, Obama seems to have usurped Bush when it comes to commanding authority on the important issues of the day, according to the Christian Science Monitor:
Barack Obama speaks, and the world listens - more intently, at this point, than it does to the actual president of the United States. President-elect Obama can inspire and alarm, calm markets or add to jitters. And with the nation in economic crisis, he seems keenly aware of that...
But he is avoiding doing anything now, either as a sitting senator or as president-elect, that would give him ownership of decisions made between now and Inauguration Day. Obama will not attend the G-20 meeting on Nov. 15, a summit of world leaders to be convened in Washington for crisis economic talks...
Still, Obama already enjoys an important tool of the presidency: the bully pulpit. For now, "that's the one power he has, to inspire and reassure," says Paul Light, an expert on presidential transitions at New York University.
When the men first met back in 2006 over breakfast at the White House, things didn't go so well.
Obama recounted the meeting in his book, "Audacity of Hope," recalling Bush's use of hand sanitizer, odd sense of humor and attempt at advice.
Bush wasn't happy with Obama's description of the meeting, expressing his irritation to Bill Sammon, Fox News' Washington Deputy Managing Editor:
The two men shook hands and then, according to Obama, Bush turned to an aide, "who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the president's hand."
Bush then offered some to Obama, who recalled: "Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt."
The president then led Obama off to one side of the room, where Bush said: "I hope you don't mind me giving you a piece of advice."...
"You've got a bright future," Bush said presciently. "Very bright. But I've been in this town awhile and, let me tell you, it can be tough. When you get a lot of attention like you've been getting, people start gunnin' for ya. And it won't necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody'll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean? So watch yourself."...
Obama laughed and even "put my arm around his shoulder as we talked," he recalled, although he added the gesture "might have made many of my friends, not to mention the Secret Service agents in the room, more than a little uneasy."
Despite this display of bonhomie, Obama said the president's demeanor turned downright frightening when he laid out his agenda to the freshly minted lawmakers.
"Suddenly it felt as if somebody in a back room had flipped a switch," Obama wrote. "The president's eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and appreciated the Founders' wisdom in designating a system to keep power in check."
When I quoted from this passage to Bush during an Oval Office interview, the president seemed irritated to learn he had been taken to task by the senator he once counseled.
I thought I was actually showing some kindness," Bush said indignantly. "And out of that he came with this belief?"
The president added with a bit of a scowl: "He doesn't know me very well."