Michelle Obama kissed Laura Bush lightly on the cheek. President-elect Obama gave President Bush an athletic pat on the shoulder. With those simple gestures, carried out Monday afternoon on the South Portico of the White House, a time-honored ritual of American democracy – the peaceful transfer of power – officially began.
For the nation, it was an obvious first as an African American came to tour the White House as president-elect. But for Obama, the visit marked a series of personal firsts:
His first trip back to the nation's capital since his victory over Sen. John McCain last week. His first limousine ride in Washington; on the campaign trail, Obama typically rode in a much more understated sport utility vehicle. His first time inside the Oval Office; although Obama had been to the White House before, he had never set foot inside the storied office that symbolizes American power around the world.
The visit was carefully choreographed to provide images of a smooth transition and a warm and friendly welcome for the new first family, and the two couples obliged. But there was as much substance as there was style; the session came in the thick of a financial crisis that has Washington swirling with talk of a second stimulus package, an expanded bailout for the insurance giant AIG and help for struggling automakers.
For an hour and five minutes, Bush and Obama sat in the Oval Office with no aides or notetakers, and discussed the economic crisis and the security challenges facing the nation. Before the meeting, advisers to Obama said he would likely press Bush to offer immediate aid to automakers.
But afterward, both sides were circumspect and declined to disclose details of their talk, preferring to let the images speak for themselves.
“Good, constructive, relaxed and friendly,” said the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, summarizing Bush's impressions.
“It was bit of a momentous day,” Obama's spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, told reporters on the flight back to Chicago, adding that Obama found the president to be “gracious.”
“I don't know that I would characterize him as awestruck,” Gibbs said of Obama. “What he said to me is, ‘It's a really nice office.' ”
The Obamas began their day in Chicago, traveling separately to Washington so that Michelle Obama could stay on and look at schools for the couple's daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. The couple was due at the White House at 2 p.m., but arrived 10 minutes early, no doubt pleasing the always punctual Bush. The men were sartorially in sync in dark blue suits, white shirts and sky blue ties; after the couples posed for photographs at the South Portico, the two leaders could be seen strolling along the Colonnade, past the White House Rose Garden, pausing for a few moments before they walked through the glass doors of the Oval Office for the first of two private meetings.
Bush relishes telling visitors about the office, and aides said the president gave Obama his standard tour, talking about the historic pieces – including the desk used by President Kennedy, made famous when young John F. Kennedy Jr. was photographed peering out from under it – as well as the Texas-inspired artwork. Afterward, the men joined their wives, who had not met before Monday, for a tour of the residence.
For Michelle Obama, the visit was a chance to begin working on the logistics of moving her family – including her mother, who helps look after the children. Laura Bush showed Michelle Obama all 33 rooms on the second and third floors, White House officials said, including the bedrooms where Malia and Sasha would likely live – the same rooms used by the Kennedy children and Amy Carter, and by the Bush twins during weekend visits when their grandfather, the first President Bush, occupied the White House.
The entire affair carried the feeling of a political changing of the guard, with aides to Bush standing on the South Lawn introducing themselves to their counterparts in an Obama administration.
Perino, the press secretary, took Gibbs, a longtime aide to Obama, into her office to discuss his forthcoming role replacing her. Reggie Love, the body man for Obama, received a tour of his own from Bush's assistant.
That sense of anticipation extended beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; as the Obamas' black limousine made its way to the White House, hundreds of people lined the streets of Washington, craning their necks to see. When the couple stepped out to greet the Bushes, there was an unfamiliar sound: cheering outside the White House gate.