- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Only six days after his election to the highest office in the land, President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on Monday toured the national treasure that will soon be their home, visiting President Bush and first lady Laura Bush at the White House.

Mr. Obama met with Mr. Bush in the Oval Office for more than an hour — afterward pronouncing it “a very, very nice office” —, while Mrs. Bush gave Mrs. Obama a tour of the White House residence. The Obamas stayed for two hours, 30 minutes longer than planned.

It was a day of photo ops and images. No public words were spoken by either the sitting president or his successor in waiting, or their spouses.

But an Obama spokesman said it was a bit of a momentous day. And such was the anticipation surrounding Mr. Obama’s coming that a few hundred spectators spontaneously gathered outside the gates of the White House, and an overflow press contingent packed into the press area inside the West Wing.

Around 1:46 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. Obama arrived at the White House in a dark limousine similar to the one used to carry sitting presidents, in a motorcade virtually identical in size to that of one used to transport Mr. Bush.

Mr. and Mrs. Bush stood on the walkway outside the South Portico in the afternoon sun, waiting to greet the Obamas. Mr. Obama, wearing a dark blue suit and blue tie, and Mrs. Obama, sporting a striking red dress, emerged and greeted the president and first lady.

The men shook hands, and the women hugged. Mr. Bush, wearing a grayish blue suit and blue tie, and Mrs. Bush, in a rust-colored dress, posed for pictures with Mr. and Mrs. Obama — who in her red heels stood taller than her husband and either of the Bush’s — before turning to walk inside.

After a brief greeting and conversation among the two couples, the Republican president and Democratic president-elect strolled down the Colonnade along the Rose Garden outside the West Wing, and sat down in the Oval Office for a private meeting.

As the two men walked down the Colonnade, Mr. Obama talked and gestured to the sitting president. As they reached the door to the Oval Office, Mr. Bush pulled it open and ushered in the president-elect.

Despite their party differences, the two men “are now going to be in a very small club,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

It was another pinnacle moment in a week of big moments for Mr. Obama, who became the nations first black president last Tuesday and held his first press conference as president-elect on Friday.

While the two leaders met, Mrs. Bush took Mrs. Obama on a tour of the White House residence, and the presidents chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, met separately with John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff who is overseeing Mr. Obama’s transition team.

Mrs. Perino also met with her likely counterpart in the next administration, Robert Gibbs.

The Obama’s two daughters — Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 — did not accompany their parents, but Mrs. Bush showed Mrs. Obama the bedrooms that have been used in the past by presidents’ children.

Chelsea Clinton was the last young child in the White House. She was 12 in 1993 when President Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton arrived in Washington.

During the meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama discussed the economic crisis and foreign policy.

Neither the White House nor the Obama transition team would comment specifically on what was said, but Mr. Gibbs reported back on his conversation with the president-elect.

“The first thing that the president-elect said to me afterward was he found the president to be extremely gracious with his time and with his invitation today,” Mr. Gibbs said. “They talked extensively about both the economic situation as well as foreign policy.”

Mr. Gibbs also praised Mr. Bush and his administration for their eagerness to work cooperatively with the Obama transition team on a smooth handover, noting that the president-elect’s people have received “nothing but cooperation and graciousness on the part of the administration.”

Mr. Bush characterized the meeting as “good, constructive, relaxed and friendly,” Mrs. Perino said.

“They had a broad discussion about the importance of working together throughout the transition of government in light of the nations many critical economic and security challenges,” said Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. “President-elect Obama thanked President Bush for his commitment to a smooth transition, and for his and First Lady Laura Bushs gracious hospitality in welcoming the Obamas to the White House.”

Mrs. Perino said that Mr. Bush had planned to emphasize his commitment to a smooth handover of power over the next 10 weeks.

Speaking in advance of the meeting, Mr. Bolten said in a C-SPAN interview on Saturday that each leader would 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.”

After their meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush took Mr. Obama to the residence for a brief tour, and then the two men returned to the Oval Office for a second conversation.

Mr. Bush has been very proactive in reaching out to Mr. Obama and in leading his administration in an effort to make the transition go off without a hitch. Yet differences between the Bush administration and incoming Obama team had already emerged in the last few days in advance of the meeting at the White House.

Mr. Podesta said on Sunday that the next president will likely undo some of Mr. Bush’s executive orders soon after taking office, such as the ban on using federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

The bipartisan spirit of the day at the White House didn’t keep Mrs. Perino from making the case for the presidents decision on stem cells. “I would ask that people think about that carefully, that the president made a very important choice after a lot of careful deliberation,” she told reporters at the briefing.

“I’m not here to advise or not advise the next team,” she said. “But I will defend what the president has put forward.”

Mrs. Perino also said that Mr. Bush was not holding a grudge over Mr. Obama’s constant criticisms of him during the nearly two-year long presidential campaign.

“He just lets those things go,” she said of the president.

“This president was not involved in the campaign. We studiously stayed out of it, even when it was very hard for us sometimes to let attacks go unanswered. But we did that, because he thought it was the right thing to do for the Republican Party.”

Mr. Obama and his top officials have also signaled that the Bush administration should do more to help the Big Three automakers, possibly using money from the $700 billion economic rescue plan. Democratic lawmakers have requested the White House examine whether they have authority to do this, but the White House has said they do not have authorization.

But publicly, all of the talk from the White House was about cooperation.

Mrs. Bush talked to Mrs. Obama about “raising a family in the White House and the support of the executive residence staff, which has been really unbelievable for the president and Mrs. Bush,” Mrs. Perino said.

And the first couple introduced the Obamas to the man who will serve as their chief usher, Rear Adm. Stephen W. Rochon, the director of the executive residence.

Mr. and Mrs. Obama left the White House separately. Mrs. Obama was scheduled to scout out possible schools for her two daughters — Georgetown Day, Maret and Sidwell Friends have been rumored to be high on the list — while Mr. Obama headed back to Chicago.

At Ronald Reagan International Airport, however, Mr. Obama had an unscheduled hour-long meeting, but Obama staff would not say who he was meeting with, leading to speculation that it was with a possible Cabinet secretary.

Outside the White House, hundreds stood against the black metal fence bordering the North Lawn, on Pennsylvania Avenue, hoping for a glimpse of their newly elected president.

The crowd included some protesters with large signs reading “Arrest Bush for war crimes,” and “Arrest Cheney first,” referring to the vice president.

But overall the crowd was quiet, and focused on seeing Mr. Obama, despite the fact that he came and left by the South Lawn entrance, and was not visible at any time.

“We are happy to see our brother elected,” said Adam Kwakye, a Pentecostal preacher born in Ghana but now working in Berlin, who was in D.C. for a religious conference.

Wallace Simmons, a 61-year old retired postman from Birmingham, Ala., stood back from the ground, watching quietly, hands in his jean pockets. Mr. Simmons said he had participated in the 1963 civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I done seen a lot of things, and there aren’t a lot of things that surprise me anymore,” said Mr. Simmons, who nonetheless admitted he had not expected to see a black president in his lifetime.

But Mr. Simmons, who was visiting the D.C. area, said he came to the White House because the election of the nation’s first black president was momentous in its own right.

“I’m just glad to be a part of history,” he said.



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