The 43rd US president and First Lady Laura Bush rolled out a red carpet welcome for Obama and wife Michelle Obama in a political rite of passage loaded with special meaning and tensions this year.
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The president-elect rolled up at the South Portico of the White House in a limousine 10 minutes early, after flying in from his hometown of Chicago, and walked with the US leader into the Oval Office for his first visit to the ultimate seat of presidential power.
Bush and Obama were set to hold private one-on-one talks on issues ranging from Iraq and the economic crisis, while First Lady Laura Bush was set to give Michelle Obama a tour of the White House family quarters.
After a two-year campaign spent pounding at Bush's “failed policies,” the Democrat is set to become first black US president on January 20 in the first handover of power since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Bush, who for years has denounced Iraq withdrawal timetables like the one offered by his successor as a surrender to terrorists, reportedly plans a wave of last-minute initiatives to advance his Republican party's agenda.
But both leaders have shown that they will observe political custom, setting aside their deep differences and any resentments in public, and share an in-depth discussion in private of the world of challenges that awaits Obama.
Bush on Saturday hailed this successor's victory as a “triumph” in US history and promised “my complete cooperation” in ensuring a “seamless” transition with a special focus on national security and economic turmoil.
“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,” Obama said last week.
The president-elect seized a chance at a rare moment of family routine, dropping young daughters Malia and Sasha at their Chicago school for the first time since his decisive November 4 victory — a reminder that the next First Family will be the youngest in decades.
Obama was to fly to Washington and then fly back after his meeting with Bush, during which Michelle Obama was to tour the residence section of the 132-room mansion with Laura Bush.
Despite the choreographed political truce, a top Obama aide signaled that the president-elect could wipe away some hallmarks of the Bush years, including curbs on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and moves to open new lands to oil drilling.
Transition chief John Podesta said Sunday that Obama would target policies that “are probably not in the interest of the country” and was reviewing Bush's executive orders for possible changes or outright repeals.
Obama has already blended talk of urgent action to confront the global economic crisis with notes of caution on foreign policy, including relations towards Iran, while underlining that he is not yet president.
At the same time, he has called for an economic stimulus package to help Americans struggling in the grips of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s — a step Bush has thus far has rejected.
The two leaders were also expected to talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Monday meeting comes earlier than usual, and far earlier than Bush's own similar talks with then-president Bill Clinton, which came in late December after the US Supreme Court ended a drawn-out vote count.
Clinton told reporters as he and his successor met in the Oval Office that a key part of the discussion was North Korea — and it may be so again in 2008, with a denuclearization deal moving forward in fits and starts.
Clinton also boasted of the health of the US economy — while Bush was expected to discuss the looming November 15 summit of richest nations and largest developing countries in Washington to discuss the global meltdown.
The president-elect has not been inside the Oval Office, but recalled in his memoirs “The Audacity of Hope” a memorable visit to the White House for a breakfast for new senators shortly after the 2004 election.
Bush called him over, introduced him to Laura Bush, got some hand sanitizer from an aide, and offered it to the bemused Illinois senator.
“Good stuff, keeps you from getting colds,” said the president. “Not wanting to seem unhygienic,” Obama wrote, “I took a squirt.”
Bush also gave chilling advice to the up-and-coming Democrat, warning that his stunning rise meant people would “start gunning for you” and cautioning: “Everybody'll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean, so watch yourself.”