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Obama makes historic White House visit

United States president-elect Barack Obama visited the White House on Monday for his first post-election meeting with President George Bush, a strikingly symbolic moment in the transition of power.

Obama, who will take office on January 20 with the country close to recession, urged Bush to back immediate emergency aid for the struggling US automakers, the New York Times reported.

The president and first lady Laura Bush greeted the newly elected president and his wife, Michelle, with smiles and handshakes, even as Obama’s advisers reviewed some of Bush’s executive orders with an eye to reversing them after he is sworn in on January 20.

The two men met privately in the Oval Office for more than an hour in talks thought to have encompassed the global financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other daunting challenges the Republican president will bequeath to his Democratic successor.

It was their first face-to-face encounter following Obama’s resounding victory over Republican John McCain in last Tuesday’s election, which will make him the US’s first black president.

Obama (47) had repeatedly attacked Bush’s ”failed policies” on the campaign trail, and the Illinois senator swept to power on a theme of change — specifically, change from the unpopular president’s approach to economics and foreign affairs.

Top congressional Democrats have asked the Bush administration to consider aid to the automakers through the financial bailout initiative that has so far covered banks and other financial services companies, and Obama urged Bush to act quickly at their meeting, according to the New York Times.

Citing people familiar with their discussion, the Times said Bush indicated he might support some aid for the auto industry and a broader economic stimulus package if Obama dropped his opposition to a free-trade pact with Colombia.

Obama’s aides say after taking office he will likely move quickly to roll back Bush’s executive orders that limit stem-cell research and expand oil and gas drilling in some areas.

But members of Obama’s team cautioned on Monday he had not yet decided whether to reverse executive orders.

There was no outward sign of tension, however, when the Obamas stepped from their limousine at the south portico of the White House. Earlier, they had been cheered by crowds of onlookers as their motorcade sped through the capital.

”Good morning,” Laura Bush chirped, though it was well past noon.

Obama put his hand on Bush’s back cordially as the two couples entered the mansion. The leaders then strolled down the colonnade side by side, chatting. Obama was the more animated of the two, gesturing with both hands. He had never set foot in the Oval Office before and was ushered in ahead of Bush.

While their husbands met, the first lady gave Michelle Obama a tour of the White House living quarters, which will soon be her family’s new home and where daughters Malia (10) and Sasha (7) will be running the halls.

Sense of urgency
At the end of a two-hour visit, Bush and Obama had nothing to say to reporters and both camps were mostly tight-lipped.

White House spokesperson Dana Perino would only say that domestic and international issues were discussed and that Bush ”again pledged a smooth transition”.

Obama spokesperson Stephanie Cutter said the leaders agreed on the need to cooperate in the changeover ”in light of the nation’s many critical economic and security challenges”.

Later, as Obama’s plane sat on the airport tarmac in Washington, DC, before taking off for Chicago, journalists onboard overheard snippets of a cellphone conversation the president elect had with an unknown party.

”I am not going to be spending too much time in Washington over the next several weeks,” Obama said.

Newly elected presidents traditionally visit the White House between election and inauguration but usually wait longer than Obama did. He came calling at Bush’s invitation after only six days, underscoring a sense of urgency in the transition.

It will be the first wartime transfer of power in four decades and comes amid economic upheaval at home and abroad.

Financial markets, struggling in a global credit crunch, are awaiting news of Obama’s appointments for key jobs such as Treasury secretary, but a spokesperson for Obama said on Monday he would not make any Cabinet announcements this week.

Obama said in his first post-election news conference on Friday he would not be rushed into making hasty decisions.

Underscoring Obama’s assertion he will not act as a shadow president during the transition, an aide confirmed what the White House had been saying — that he will not attend a global financial summit in Washington on Friday and Saturday.

Bush, whose low approval ratings helped propel Obama to victory, has said he will do all he can to help in the changeover.

Though visits by incoming presidents to the White House before taking office are a ritual dating back decades, there was little denying Obama’s tour carried special significance.

The son of a black father from Kenya and white mother from Kansas, Obama made history by winning the presidency, an achievement seen as a breakthrough in US race relations. — Reuters

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Matt Spetalnick
Matt Spetalnick works from Washington. Reuters Washington Correspondent Foreign Policy/National Security/White House Matt Spetalnick has over 2753 followers on Twitter.

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