WASHINGTON — Bitter campaign foes just weeks ago, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met for lunch at the White House on Thursday, discussing America’s leadership in the world and pledging to stay in touch after a bitter presidential contest.
In their first meeting since the election, Obama and the Republican nominee shook hands in the Oval Office and had an hourlong lunch in the White House’s private dining room, fulfilling a promise Obama made in his victory speech the night of Nov. 6.
The White House said Romney congratulated the president for his successful campaign and wished him well in the coming four years.
Over a lunch of white turkey chili and Southwestern grilled chicken salad, the conversation focused on America’s leadership in the world and the importance of maintaining that leadership position.
White House officials said the two men pledged to stay in touch, particularly if opportunities to work together on shared interests arise in the future.
Prior to the lunch, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama had no specific agenda for the meeting, but he said the president wanted to discuss Romney’s ideas for making government more efficient. Obama has proposed merging some functions of government related to business and has asked Congress for authority to undertake some executive branch reorganization.
Obama aides said they reached out to Romney’s team shortly before Thanksgiving to start working on a date for the meeting.
For Romney, it was a day of closure after a hard-fought campaign.
Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who was his vice presidential running mate, met earlier in the day to talk about the pending fiscal cliff negotiations and other economic challenges facing Washington, a Ryan aide said. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the aide was not authorized to discuss the private discussions.
On a personal level, the pair discussed their families and talked about the harried 12 weeks of the general election campaign.
“I remain grateful to Gov. Romney for the honor of joining his ticket this fall, and I cherish our friendship,” Ryan said in a statement after their meeting. “I’m proud of the principles and ideas we advanced during the campaign and the commitment we share to expanding opportunity and promoting economic security for American families.”
Much of that debate centers on expiring tax cuts first enacted in the George W. Bush administration. Obama and Romney differed sharply during the campaign over what to do with the cuts, with the Republican pushing for them to be extended for all income earners and the president running on a pledge to let the cuts expire for families making more than $250,000 a year.
The White House sees Obama’s victory as a signal that Americans support his tax proposals.
Obama and Romney’s sit-down Thursday was their most extensive private meeting to date. The two men had only a handful of brief exchanges before the 2012 election.
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom called it a “very friendly lunch. They spoke about some of the big challenges facing America, and it gave Governor Romney the opportunity to personally congratulate President Obama for the success of his campaign.”
Even after their political fates became intertwined, their interactions were largely confined to the three presidential debates.
The meeting was not without incident. The Secret Service said a man interfered with Romney’s motorcade as his vehicle arrived at a secure checkpoint near the White House and was later arrested after becoming combative during an interview with a police officer.
CNN released video of the SUV carrying Romney arriving at the check point, showing a man briefly heckling Romney before the vehicle entered the White House complex.
Romney has virtually disappeared from politics following his election loss. He’s spent the past three weeks largely in seclusion at his family’s Southern California home. He has made no public appearances, drawing media attention after being photographed at Disneyland in addition to stops at the movies and the gym with his wife, Ann.