President Bush and Barack Obama will hold their first substantive talks Monday as the transition to a new Democratic administration accelerates.
Bush, who will return to Texas soon after completion of his two terms in office, publicly directed employees Thursday to ensure a peaceful and cooperative transfer of power. The transition is a delicate dance, in which the White House keeps the president-elect in the loop, and even solicits his input, but the decisions remain solely the president’s.
On Monday’s discussion list: the financial crisis, the war in Iraq and the future of the country.
“We face economic challenges that will not pause to let a new president settle in,” Bush told a gathering of hundreds of employees from the presidential bureaucracy, gathered on a White House lawn.
“This will also be America’s first wartime presidential transition in four decades,” he said. “We’re in a struggle against violent extremists determined to attack us, and they would like nothing more than to exploit this period of change to harm the American people.”
That sobering depiction came as Bush and Obama firmed up plans for their first meeting Obama defeated Republican John McCain in Tuesday’s election.
Bush and first lady Laura Bush will greet Obama and his wife, Michelle, at the White House on Monday afternoon. The current and future president will meet in the Oval Office while the first lady gives Mrs. Obama a private tour of the White House residence.
The Obamas’ two children won’t be there, but White House press secretary Dana Perino said “we very much look forward to meeting them.”
Bush’s comments to his staff, under a gray sky on the South Lawn, also had the feel of an early goodbye with 75 days left in office.
He stood with the Cabinet, the first lady, and the vice president and his wife by his side. By the time he finished speaking and offered a wave to the crowd, Bush grew emotional. Laura Bush leaned in to give him a hug.
The White House signaled that after months of staying out of the politics of the 2008 election – often enduring a pummeling from Obama – it would soon start speaking up to defend Bush’s record on education, energy, the economy and other issues. The focus will be a natural turn to Bush’s legacy.
Meanwhile, the shift from one White House to the next is fully under way, with Bush setting a serious tone and expectations for his staff.
The Bush administration has already arranged security clearances for key Obama transition staffers and is providing working space and policy briefings as well. Career employees, who keep their jobs even when administrations change, have taken on extra work to prevent any disruption in essential services.
“We must keep our attention on the task at hand, because the American people expect no less,” Bush directed the executive employees.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security caution that the U.S. is in a heightened state of alert against terrorism. The fear is that enemies could exploit the transition period to test the country’s defenses, as Bush himself warned. No specific threat has been presented to the public.
Preparation for the complex transfer of power has quietly been unfolding for about a year. It accelerated with the landslide election of Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, over Republican John McCain.
Obama on Thursday got the first of what will become regular briefings on highly classified information from top intelligence officials.
World leaders are seeking out Obama by calling Bush’s government. Perino said officials are working with Obama’s team to make the connections.
Bush also suggested there will be no tolerance of pranks during the transition.
When he took office in 2001, some aides found their computer keyboards were missing the W key – a nod to the middle initial in George W. Bush. Staff members of outgoing President Bill Clinton were suspected and criticized for acting immaturely.
Bush told the big gathering of employees on Thursday: “I know that you will continue to conduct yourselves with the decency and professionalism you have shown throughout my time in office.”
During the campaign, Obama relentlessly blistered the Bush administration for what he called failed, tired policies that have harmed the country. The White House has sought to make clear that politics will not affect the transition in any way.
Bush sounded wistful as he looked out at a lot of familiar faces, including some people he’s seen at work each day for nearly eight years.
The president recalled that before his 2001 inauguration, he said that he and his wife would never quite settle in Washington.
“While the honor is great,” Bush said, “the work is temporary.”