WASHINGTON – President-elect Obama suggested to President Bush that the administration immediately help struggling U.S. automakers, aides to the Democrat say, in the first face-to-face meeting the pair had since Obama's election victory.
Obama's aides said the president-elect on Monday brought up the issue with Bush and discussed with him the need for urgent action. The Illinois senator's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said only that the talks during Obama's first post-election victory to the White House were mostly "about the broad health of the industry" and were not just limited to any one of the three largest car makers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked the administration over the weekend to consider expanding the $700 billion bailout for financial firms to include car companies. At a news conference last Friday, Obama said he hoped the Bush administration would "do everything it can to accelerate the retooling assistance that Congress has already enacted." He also said that helping the auto industry was a high priority for his transition team.
The White House did not reject such an idea. Presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush would listen to lawmakers if, when they come back for a post-election session, "they decide to try to do something more on the auto industry." She said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson would review the rescue plan again, but also suggested the administration needs Congress' help to determine which industries might qualify for help under the new law.
Regarding any new economic stimulus plan, the White House has repeatedly stressed that its main priority is passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia.
The president and Obama also talked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and financial crisis. At the same time, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama talked about raising daughters in the nation's most famous house. Then Obama flew back to Chicago to work on setting up the new administration that will take over on Jan. 20.
The 43rd president and the man who will be the 44th — and first black — commander in chief met alone in the Oval Office, with no handlers or staff. It was Obama's first time in the storied workspace, even though he had been to the White House previously for events.
Neither the Bushes nor the Obamas spoke to reporters. Aides who described the discussion about the auto industry did so on grounds of anonymity, citing the private nature of the meeting.
Perino said that Bush described the meeting as "constructive, relaxed and friendly," covering problems at home and abroad, and said he personally pledged a smooth transition. Bush gave Obama a sneak peek at White House highlights, such as the Lincoln Bedroom and the president's office in the residence, after their hour-plus in the Oval Office.
Such White House meetings have a history going back decades. They are discussions that can range wherever the two men choose, whether on specific issues, how best to make decisions, the extraordinary resources that accompany any American president, the special weight of the office or even the secrets about the building that few people are privy to. It's also a chance to establish personal rapport between near-strangers, though that is by no means guaranteed.
Outside, crowds built throughout the day with people pressing their noses through the fencing around the White House complex in hopes of getting a glimpse of the first family to be. Street vendors operating nearby were already stocked with Obama-related merchandise.
Bush and Obama met as the main transition news of the day was the Democratic team's preparations to rescind many of the incumbent's executive orders. Obama transition chief John Podesta said that the senator's aides were poring over all of them and will make such reversals among the new president's first acts.
Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said in a statement that no decisions have yet been made on executive orders. "Before he makes any decisions on potential executive or legislative actions, he will be conferring with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, as well as interested groups," she said.
Said Podesta, delivering a concrete rebuke of Bush only about 24 hours before the two men sat down together: "We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set."