President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama sat down face to face for about an hour in the Oval Office today, their first meeting on the transfer of power.
Not even top aides were allowed into the meeting, in which the two men discussed national security, the economy, the auto industry, and the $700 billion bailout to help stabilize the economy, most which has not yet been allocated.
According to a statement from Obama-Biden Transition Spokesperson Stephanie Cutter: "President-elect Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama were very warmly welcomed today at the White House by president George Bush and first lady Laura Bush. Upon arriving, President-elect Obama and President Bush proceeded to the Oval Office, where they had a productive and friendly meeting that lasted for over an hour. They had a broad discussion about the importance of working together throughout the transition of government in light of the nation's many critical economic and security challenges."
The president and first lady Laura Bush greeted Obama and first lady-in-waiting Michelle Obama at the South Portico shortly before 2 p.m. The Bushes were waiting outside in the sunny autumn weather when Obama's motorcade drew up.
Obama helped his wife out of the limo, and then strode over to Bush to shake his hand and rest his left hand familiarly on Bush's shoulder. The women exchanged pecks on the cheek. Obama and Laura Bush greeted each other formally, simply shaking hands.
The four of them turned for a quick photo before heading inside with Obama again putting his hand on the president's shoulder as they filed indoors.
Within moments, the two men had left their spouses, who went on to tour the historic building and its living quarters. Bush and Obama were seen striding along the White House Colonnade enroute to talk business in the Oval Office. The president and the president-elect, each wearing a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, waved to crowds who watched through the White House fence. After their meeting, the president took Obama on a tour of the residence, including the living quarters, the Lincoln bedroom and the rooms where Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, will soon live.
President Bush described the conversation as "good, constructive, relaxed and friendly" and a source close to Obama told ABC news the senator immediately remarked how gracious President Bush was.
While Bush and Obama were talking politics, Mrs. Bush gave Michelle Obama a tour of the White House. In the hour they spent together, the two wives discussed family life and children.
The meeting was expected to be cordial, but it had the potential to become awkward. Obama has spent most of the last two years deriding Bush's economic, environmental and foreign policies, and the tactic produced a landslide victory over Sen. John McCain.
But the two men have also had kind words for each other and both are consummate politicians able to smooth over delicate moments when necessary.
The Obamas traveled to Washington from Chicago separately, and they left the White House separately. Michelle Obama left first in her own motorcade. She was scheduled to check out some schools for her daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.
The president then walked Obama from the Oval Office to his motorcade at 3:45 p.m. Obama headed for Reagan National Airport where he was going to hold privae meetings before returning to Chicago.
Obama's top aides made it clear during weekend news shows that the incoming president is considering using executive orders to change the policies of the outgoing president. Those orders could expand federal funding for stem cell research and reverse a recently enacted Bush order allowing drilling for oil and gas in some of the country's pristine reserves.
John Podesta, who heads Obama's transition team, was blunt about the drilling order on "Fox News Sunday." He said the Bush administration wants drilling "in some of the most sensitive, fragile lands in Utah that they're going to try to do right as they -- walking out the door. I think that's a mistake."
There are other public points of the contention between the two men. Obama said in his first news conference Friday since winning the election that he would like the administration to pass a second economic stimulus, something that the Bush administration is resisting.
And Obama's supporters are pressing him to promptly keep his campaign promises. The American Civil Liberties Union took out a full-page ad in some newspapers today quoting Obama's vow to shut down the terrorist prison in Guantanamo Bay. The ad asks Obama to follow through "on day one."
Nevertheless, Obama said Friday, "I'm not going to anticipate problems. I'm going in there with a spirit of bipartisanship."
Obama Opens Transition Office in Washington
The presidential changeover is taking place with major steps and small ones. For instance, the Secret Service came up with its code name for the incoming president, Renegade. Michelle Obama will be known to those who talk into their sleeves as Renaissance. The monickers for the Bushes is Tumbler and Tempo.
On a grander scale, Obama opened his transition office in Washington today and he is expected to announce more staff appointments this week, likely press secretary, White House counsel and domestic policy advisers.
High ranking economic and national security advisers and Cabinet secretaries are not expected to be unveiled this week.
Obama is being careful not to undermine Bush while waiting to take office Jan. 20. Obama will take part in a Veterans Day wreath-laying ceremony in Chicago Tuesday, but he has other public events scheduled.
For Obama, today's visit marks a complex transition down Pennsylvania Avenue -- from the legislative branch, governed by the first section of the Constitution, at one end of the street, to the executive branch governed by the second at the other.
"It takes a long time to figure out that the culture of Article 1 is very different than the culture of Article 2," Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution fellow who served on the staffs of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and advised Presidents Ford and Carter, said Friday during a panel.
The White House meeting today was one of many cooperative moves both Bush and Obama have vowed will be a hallmark of the transition.
A History of Reaching Across the Aisle
Obama has suggested he will select Republicans as well as Democrats for key positions. Incoming chief of staff Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, D-Ill., reiterated Sunday on "This Week With George Stephanapoulos" that that's the way Obama will govern.
If the past is any indicator, that may be the way the president-elect chooses to do business. When Obama served as the president of the Harvard Law Review, the journal published legal writings across a broad ideological spectrum and he was credited for his balanced choices.
If Obama does pick people for top Cabinet positions from across the aisle, it will also not be unprecedented.
For instance, before taking office in 1961, President-elect John F. Kennedy tapped Republican Clarence Douglas Dillon for Treasury secretary. Kennedy also selected Robert McNamara, a liberal Republican who was then president of Ford Motor Company, to be his secretary of defense.
More recently, Republican William Cohen was sworn in as defense secretary in 1997 under Democratic President Bill Clinton. When he took office in 2001, Bush appointed Democrat Norm Mineta, Clinton's commerce secretary, to be secretary of transportation.
Obama Promises Bipartisan Spirit
"Having a couple Republicans in the Cabinet does not guarantee greater effectiveness, but it may open communication channels," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Still, Hess warned that Obama should not make picks that could be divisive by tapping extremely partisan people.
"Be cautious, Mr. President, about these appointments," Hess said.
"There is no doubt that I think people want to know who's going to make up our team, and I want to move with all deliberate haste, but I want to emphasize deliberate as well as haste," Obama said Friday at a press conference. "And I think it's very important in all these key positions, both in the economic team and the national security team, to -- to get it right and -- and not to be so rushed that you end up making mistakes. I'm confident that we're going to have an outstanding team, and we will be rolling that out in subsequent weeks."
Is a Bipartisan Spirit in Congress More Important Than a Bipartisan Cabinet?
Still, many Washington insiders said making Republican picks for Cabinet posts won't be nearly as critical as fostering a bipartisan climate in Congress. What matters most, they said, is to have friends on the other side of the aisle on Capitol Hill.
"That's what it comes down to -- in this city at least -- when you talk about bipartisanship," Hess said.
Former White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein, who served under President Ronald Reagan, also said staff selection would be just as critical, if not more critical, than Cabinet picks.
"It's the White House staff – starting with chief of staff and then going out – that really has the ear of the president of the United States," Duberstein said, cautioning that Cabinet members get trapped representing their special interest groups to the president rather than the reverse. "That's the way it really works."