Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Historic White House meeting

Bush and Obama deep in discussion at the Oval Office of the White House yesterday. — AP pic

WASHINGTON, Nov 11 - President-elect Barack Obama had his first look at the White House Oval Office during a nearly two-hour meeting with President George W. Bush, as the two men took the first steps in transferring power over a country mired in economic crisis and at war in two distant lands.

As the 43rd and 44th US presidents held their first face-to-face talks on Monday, the next first lady, Michelle Obama, toured the presidential residence with Laura Bush.

At the end of their highly symbolic visit, Bush walked Obama to a waiting black limousine for the trip to the airport and the return flight by jet charter to his transition headquarters in Chicago. His team is working there to put together the next Cabinet and to fill the hundreds of jobs that come open in a change of administrations.
Neither Bush nor Obama made a statement before or after their meeting.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the two men “talked extensively” about the economic situation and foreign policy.

“Obviously the topics that came up are what you’ve seen and heard about in the news recently and about what a number of transition officials spoke about on the Sunday (TV talk) shows,” he said.

Topics included “the need to get the economy back on track,” Gibbs said, and “what’s going on in the auto industry.” The discussion of the auto industry wasn’t limited to any one of the nation’s three largest car makers, he said. “It was a discussion about the broad health of the industry, and they also spoke about the housing industry and foreclosures.”

Michelle Obama arrived in the nation’s capital ahead of her husband Monday and was returning to Chicago separately. She was scouting out Washington schools for the Obama daughters — 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha.

The Obamas arrived at the White House diplomatic entrance 11 minutes before their appointed 2pm visit and were greeted outdoors by the president and first lady who stood without coats in the beautiful but chilly fall day.

Bush has been at pains to make the transition as smooth and gracious as possible. He has publicly set aside any lingering hard feelings after the long and sometimes bitter presidential election campaign in which Obama convincingly defeated Republican John McCain, having hammered him as little more than a clone of the deeply unpopular Bush.

Bush had backed McCain but lauded Obama’s victory as a “triumph of the American story,” as he issued a warm invitation for Obama and the next first lady to visit their future home. Obama will be the country’s first black president and takes office with fellow Democrats firmly in control of both houses of Congress.

As the visit began, Bush and Obama could be seen talking animatedly as they strolled alone under the White House Colonnade, pausing for pictures before entering the Oval Office for Obama’s first visit to the presidential chamber.

Bush allowed Obama to enter the historic office first as they prepared for a private talk about the challenges of leading a nation freighted in this hand-over of power by a crippling economic downturn and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The country’s troubles fall to Obama when he takes office Jan 20.

After arriving, the Obamas were taken to the Diplomatic Reception Room where met the chief usher of the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said.

Mrs Bush gave Mrs Obama a tour of the first family’s living quarters, including the bedrooms used by children of past presidents. Cutter’s statement said the women spent time in the White House “West Sitting Hall, where they discussed raising daughters in the White House, as Jenna and Barbara Bush were similar in age to Malia and Sasha Obama when they visited their grandfather, President George H. W. Bush, during his presidency.”

Obama started his day in Chicago, dropping his daughters at their private Chicago school, giving each girl a kiss before heading to a gym for a workout.

When asked last week about his meeting with Bush, Obama said: “I’m going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship, and a sense that both the president and various leaders of Congress all recognize the severity of the situation right now and want to get stuff done.”

Aside from a meeting with economic advisers and holding a press conference on Friday, Obama has stayed largely out of view, emphasising there is just one US president for now, and that is Bush.

The president-elect’s transition chief, John Podesta, arrived at the White House in the Obama limousine but was not believed to have been in the meeting.

Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten had said in advance of the session that he was “sure each of them will have a list of issues to go down. But I think that’s something very personal to both of them. I know the president will want to convey to President-elect Obama his sense of how to deal with some of the most important issues of the day. But exactly how he does that, I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody will know.” - AP

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