WASHINGTON (AP) – President-elect Barack Obama lays eyes on the Oval Office for the first time Monday in the formal start of America’s intricate minuet of transition from one president to the next.
President George W. Bush will guide his successor into the historic chambers where the 43rd and 44th U.S. presidents will talk privately about the challenges of leading a nation freighted in this hand-over of power by a severe economic downturn and two wars. The country’s troubles fall to Obama when he takes office Jan. 20.
Bush, who had endorsed Republican John McCain, lauded Obama’s victory as a “triumph of the American story,” as he issued a warm invitation for the next president and his wife, Michelle, to their future home.
The Obamas’ arrival at the executive mansion was historic. He will be the country’s first black president and takes office with fellow Democrats firmly in control of the White House and both houses of Congress.
“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 when asked about his meeting with Bush.
Obama won the presidency in an electoral landslide last week after running a campaign in which he relentlessly linked McCain to the unpopular Bush and what the president-elect called Bush’s failed policies.
The tone changed almost immediately after Obama’s win.
Bush, who had endorsed McCain, lauded Obama’s historic victory, and Obama, in turn, thanked Bush for being gracious. The president-elect has emphasized there is just one U.S. president for now, and that is Bush.
Josh Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff, said Bush and Obama will be the only ones in the room when they meet.
“I’m sure each of them will have a list of issues to go down,” Bolten said, interviewed on C-SPAN by reporters from The Associated Press and The Washington Post. “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.”
Obama and wife, Michelle, are set to arrive at the White House on Monday afternoon. Bush and first lady Laura Bush will greet them.
In a bit of pageantry for the cameras, the president and president-elect are to walk along the Colonnade and into the Oval Office.
Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Obama will meet privately, too.
Unlike the incoming president, Bush knew his way around the Oval Office by the time he was elected in 2000 — his father had been president. Still, like many before them, President Bill Clinton and President-elect Bush had their own private meeting, keeping up a tradition that temporarily puts the presidency above politics.
Obama has been to the White House before, including an emergency leadership session to deal with the financial crisis in September.
But an Obama spokeswoman said the president-elect has never been in the Oval Office.
Once he sits behind the desk, the 44th president is expected to use his executive powers to reverse Bush administration policies on stem cell research, oil exploration and other issues.
John Podesta, who’s handling Obama’s preparations to take over in the White House on Jan. 20, said on Sunday that Obama was reviewing Bush’s executive orders on those and other issues as he prepares to put his own stamp on policy after eight years of Republican rule.
“There’s a lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action, and I think we’ll see the president do that,” Podesta said. “I think that he feels like he has a real mandate for change. We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set.”
Use of executive authority is the quickest way for a new president to exert his power, given that passage of new laws by Congress can be a painfully slow process, even when the chief executive enjoys a legislative majority.
Podesta pointed specifically to two particularly controversial Bush executive orders as candidates for reversal.
“I think across the board, on stem cell research, on a number of areas, you see the Bush administration even today moving aggressively to do things that I think are probably not in the interest of the country,” Podesta said.
Obama has supported stem cell research in an effort to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Also, the federal Bureau of Land Management is opening about 360,000 acres (145,000 hectares) of public land in Utah to oil and gas drilling, leading to protests from environmentalists.
“They want to have oil and gas drilling in some of the most sensitive, fragile lands in Utah,” Podesta said. “I think that’s a mistake.”
Speaking on Fox television, Podesta said Obama was working to build a diverse Cabinet likely to include Republicans and independents — part of the broad coalition that supported Obama during the race against McCain.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been mentioned as a possible holdover.