For nearly two years on the campaign trail, Sen. Barack Obama rarely missed a chance to take a swipe at President Bush. The name George W. Bush invariably followed the phrase “failed policies” in Obama's speeches. “When George Bush steps down,” Obama once declared, “the world is going to breathe a sigh of relief.”
Today, Obama, a Democrat from Illinois, may find himself regretting those words – or at least conveniently forgetting that he said them. As president-elect, he will be welcomed at the White House as an honored guest for a meeting that could be as awkward as it is historic.
In a time-honored tradition of American democracy, Obama and his wife, Michelle, will receive a tour of their new home from Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush. Then the men will split off to begin the formal transfer of power, all the more urgent this year because of the financial crisis.
There will be a subtext to the session: the personal chemistry between two leaders whose world views are miles apart. The ritual visit is uncommonly early this year, less than a week after Obama handily defeated Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was the Republican nominee and Bush's preferred candidate. Emotions may still be raw.
“I'm not going to anticipate problems,” Obama said Friday at his first news conference as president-elect. “I'm going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship.”
Bush and Obama have had little chance to forge the kind of personal relationship that might prompt a smooth handoff. In his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama wrote less than admiringly of his first face-to-face encounter with the president, at a White House breakfast for new senators after the 2004 election, where Bush outlined his second-term agenda.
“The president's eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty,” Obama wrote. “As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring.”
Bush, meanwhile, was privately critical of Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary race, telling friends he thought Obama's chief rival for the party's nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, was “more experienced and more ready to be president,” said one friend of Bush's who had such a conversation. But, the friend said, Obama ran a good campaign – Bush is someone who appreciates that – and the election last week might have eased his doubts.
For Bush, the meeting has a distinct upside: the chance to take the edge off his unpopularity. Democrats are already praising him as gracious for his post-election speech in the Rose Garden, where he said it would be a “stirring sight” to see the Obama family move into the White House.
“The important thing he gets out of it,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said, “is a public perception of him as somebody who is leaving in classy fashion, by opening his house and his information and his government. He wants to leave on a note that says he did everything possible to help this next president run the country.”