Bush and Obama find common ground

Nicholas is a Times staff writer.

Barack Obama entered the Oval Office for the first time Monday, meeting with President Bush to plan the transfer of power while his wife, Michelle, was escorted by the first lady through the Obama family’s next home.

Obama’s visit to the White House, six days after his victory, was rich in symbolism as the incoming and outgoing presidents strode side by side along the colonnade. When they reached the Oval Office, Bush held the door for the man who will succeed him Jan. 20.

Neither was much impressed with the other during the election campaign.

Obama repeatedly ridiculed the Bush administration, tapping into the public’s rising distress over the country’s direction. Bush endorsed Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.


Still, the visit appeared cordial. After the couples posed for pictures, the 43rd president and the 44th president-in-waiting spent a private hour discussing foreign and domestic affairs, the economy, the ailing auto industry and national security.

Michelle Obama and Laura Bush inspected a White House residence that will soon be home to two girls -- ages 7 and 10 -- and a puppy of undetermined breed.

The president also took time to give the Illinois senator a personal tour of the White House living quarters, including the Lincoln Bedroom.

Obama has already opined on one of the room’s amenities. In a campaign swing through North Dakota, he suggested he might remove the flat-screen television he spotted in the bedroom during a visit a few years ago. Guests in the Lincoln Bedroom should be reading the 16th president’s writings, not watching sports on TV, Obama said at the time.

There was no word on whether he raised the matter with Bush.

Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman, said Bush described the visit as “good, constructive, relaxed and friendly.”

Obama aides released a statement thanking the president and first lady for their courtesy.

“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,” said Stephanie Cutter, spokeswoman for the Obama transition office. “President-elect Obama thanked President Bush for his commitment to a smooth transition, and for his and First Lady Laura Bush’s gracious hospitality in welcoming the Obamas to the White House.”

Before the president-elect’s arrival, spectators three rows deep pressed against the north gate of the White House, eager for a glimpse. Farther back, antiwar protesters chanted, “No more war!”

When the visit ended, Obama held a private meeting at Reagan National Airport, then flew home to Chicago. Aides would not reveal the purpose of the meeting.

Since winning the election, Obama has moved in a more deliberative style. The contrast is stark. He presided over an aggressive campaign operation that, in its zeal to win the news cycle, produced a daily volley of policy ideas and statements.

Now that he is about to govern, he is recalibrating the pace.

In transition offices here and in Chicago, Obama aides are quietly vetting candidates for high-level jobs.

No Cabinet nominations will be announced this week, an Obama aide said.

Two senior aides from Obama’s campaign will join him in the White House, an Obama aide said. Robert Gibbs, a senior advisor, will be Obama’s press secretary; David Axelrod, the chief campaign strategist, will become a top advisor.

Pete Rouse, Obama’s former Senate chief of staff and now a co-chairman of his transition team, may become a deputy chief of staff, said a Democratic congressional aide familiar with transition matters.

Obama aides do not appear to have settled on nominees for two crucial posts: secretaries of Defense and Treasury.

Lawrence H. Summers, who held the Treasury job under President Clinton, is a top candidate who already serves as one of Obama’s economic advisors.

But Obama aides are worried that Summers comes with too much baggage.

In 2005, as president of Harvard University, he touched off a furor when he suggested that women may not be as innately skilled in the hard sciences as men.

“The fear is that Obama would have to deal with that baggage on this important position right from the get-go,” the Democratic congressional aide said.

Obama has promised a bipartisan approach. In that spirit, retaining Robert M. Gates -- who has enjoyed widespread support as Defense secretary -- might make sense. But one complication has emerged: What to do about the people directly under Gates? Were Obama to ask Gates to remove subordinates, he might not choose to stay.

Experts in presidential transitions urged Obama to focus first on naming a White House staff, then turn his attention to the Cabinet. Clinton became preoccupied with Cabinet choices before his senior White House staff was in place -- a mistake Obama should not repeat, veterans of past transitions said.

Mickey Kantor, who was involved in Clinton’s transition in 1992, said:

“We did not appoint a White House staff until late. We spent a huge amount of time appointing a Cabinet. And I think that’s the reverse of what should happen. The Obama transition has started off correctly in appointing Rahm [Emanuel] as the chief of staff first.”