President Obama will personally welcome Pope Francis at the airport when he arrives for his first U.S. tour, a change for a protocol operation that normally only rolls out the red carpet at the White House.
But Obama’s aides expect the immensely popular pope to shine a spotlight on some of the president’s highest-priority domestic and international concerns.
Climate change, economic justice and criminal justice reform are not only at the top of Obama’s to-do list for his final 16 months in office. They’re also the subject of writings and public remarks of the church leader whose star power is on the rise while the president is a lame duck.
In addition to public Masses and an address to both houses of Congress, the pope’s planned schedule in Washington, Philadelphia and New York from Sept. 22-27 includes a school, a prison and other telegenic stops where one could imagine Obama pushing his own policy agenda.
The two leaders already share one foreign policy achievement that shows their shared interests.
After Obama visited the Vatican in March 2014, Pope Francis and his senior aides helped to secretly broker a thaw between the United States and Cuba. The two longtime adversaries restored diplomatic relations this summer, and both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro publicly thanked Francis for his intervention.
During his U.S. visit, the pope will chat with inmates at a prison in northeast Philadelphia to highlight his call for prison reform. It’s no coincidence that two months ago, Obama became the first
sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison and talk to inmates as part of his own efforts to overhaul parts of the criminal justice system.
And as Obama pushes for an international consensus to battle global warming ahead of the United Nations conference on climate change this fall, White House aides cite the power of the pope’s passionate entreaties to Christians worldwide about caring for the creation.
In June, the pope issued a 184-page encyclical, Laudato Si, that called for sweeping action around the globe to combat environmental degradation and climate change that he said was due mostly to fossil fuels and human activity.
Perhaps the surest sign of the potential political value of the papal-presidential summit is the White House insistence that it’s not about politics.
“The goal of the pope’s visit to the United States is not to advance any political agenda, but rather, to acknowledge the significant Catholic population inside the United States and the shared values of these two world leaders,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
“But look, the United States and the Vatican do have a range of issues that we care about, and so I also wouldn’t rule out that some of those other policy conversations did take place at lower levels, you know, particularly on things like climate change.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a key White House ally as the Democratic leader in the House, says her determination to battle global warming is in part informed by her Catholic faith.
“The pope’s commitment to focusing on our climate crisis is, I think, an act of worship,” she said.
While that puts him in conflict with Republicans in Congress and others who contend climate change is a hoax, she denied that Democrats are politicizing the pope by promoting their shared views.
“He himself has put his climate change views front and center,” Pelosi said.
Some Catholics hope Francis will publicly oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, among other sensitive issues that set him apart from Obama and most Democrats. Lawmakers from both parties are likely to embrace parts of the pope’s message — and ignore other parts.
“There’s one thing we know about this pope,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters. “He’s not afraid to take on the status quo. He’s not afraid to say what he really thinks. I can tell you this: I am not about to get myself into an argument with the pope.”
Polls show a majority of Americans, not just Catholics, have a favorable opinion of Francis. His papal writings and public statements on homosexuality and forgiveness for women who have had abortions have drawn attention far outside Catholic circles.
That gives America’s first African American president and the first pope from the developing world strong incentive to make the most of the intense interest Francis’ visit has generated — and to leverage one another for maximum impact.
“The president and the Holy Father both have an opportunity to make use of the visit with all those eyes on it, said Anita McBride, executive in residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University’s School of Public Affairs.
McBride, who was chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, says the excitement surrounding this papal visit to Washington is a “sharp contrast” to the last one, in April 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI huddled with President George W. Bush.
White House aides at the time feared the pontiff might make sharp public comments about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did not.