WASHINGTON — President-elect Obama and President Bush gathered today for their first face-to-face meeting, an Oval Office session that comes during a historic shifting of power to a new administration.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, arrived at the South Portico 11 minutes early with President Bush and first lady Laura Bush waiting for them. Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Obama enjoyed a warm greeting, while the president and his successor exchanged smiles and a handshake.
Taking a bit of prerogative, the president-elect put his left hand on Bush’s back as the two couples entered the Diplomatic Reception Room.
Bush and Obama strolled along the Colonnade and waved for their cameras while their wives began a meeting of their own. The president and the president-elect then headed into the Oval Office to talk about the future of the country, with topics likely including the financial crisis and the war in Iraq.
It was the president-elect’s first visit to the White House since his landslide election victory — and his first visit ever to the Oval Office.
The scene was a sunny fall day with moderate temperatures and colorful — but fading — autumn leaves.
Their arrival had the look of a foreign head-of-state state visit — although there were no fife and drum bands, speeches or official pageantry.
Earlier, Obama arrived in Washington, stepped of his plane and was greeted by transition manager John Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Clinton.
Obama climbed into a black limousine with tinted windows, instead of his normal SUV; the limo looked just like the one that the president rides in, without the seal or flags. The entire motorcade was upgraded from campaign mode to presidential-level, with a second identical decoy limousine, a black haz-mat truck, a communications truck and the counter-assault team hanging out the back of an SUV.
Mrs. Bush was to give Mrs. Obama a tour of the first family’s living quarters, including the bedrooms used by children of past presidents. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the two women were expected to talk about living in one of the world’s most famous building, from family life to the help provided by executive staff.
The Obamas have two daughters: Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Obama started his day in Chicago, dropping the two girls at school, each with a kiss, and then going to a gym for a workout.
Ahead of the meeting, Obama told reporters last week that he was headed to the White House meeting with “a spirit of bipartisanship.”
Obama won the presidency in an electoral landslide on Tuesday. He ran a campaign in which he relentlessly linked Republican opponent John McCain to Bush and presented his ideas as a fresh alternative to what he called Bush’s failed policies.
Yet the tone changed almost immediately after Obama’s win.
Bush, who had endorsed McCain, lauded Obama’s victory as a “triumph of the American story.” He warmly invited the Obama family to the White House.
Obama, in turn, thanked Bush for being gracious. The president-elect has made clear to the people of the United States and those watching around the world that there is only one president for now, and that’s Bush. Obama is in the transition to power but does not assume the presidency until Jan. 20.
Josh Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff, said Bush and Obama will likely each have a list of issues to go down.
“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,” said Bolten, interviewed on C-SPAN by reporters from The Associated Press and The Washington Post. “But exactly how he does that, I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody will know.”
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 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.