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Transition Ramps Up as Obama, Bush Meet at White House

November 10, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Sen. Barack Obama and President Bush met Monday at the White House as speculation about the president-elect's cabinet and which top officials he may retain from the current administration continued to circulate around Washington. A journalist explains the process.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the preparations to hand off power from President Bush to President-elect Obama, I’m joined by New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, good to see you again.

JEFF ZELENY, New York Times: Good to see you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It hasn’t even been a week since we’ve had an election, and already you’ve had I guess what’s described as the earliest meeting between a president and a president-elect. Why so quick?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, I think one thing: Mr. Obama wants to send the message, both visually and substantively, that he is engaging, he is digging in on all these big challenges that are known.

And when he was flying today from Chicago to Washington, he was very serious. He was reading. He’s not in a joking mood, if you will. He’s in a very substantive mood. So that’s what this meeting was all about.

I think it was also a sense to sort of get it out of the way. You know, this is definitely looming. There’s the White House global economic summit coming, which Mr. Obama is not going to, so if not now, you know, the meeting at the White House might sort of run into Thanksgiving and things.

He wanted to get the meeting out of the way. He’s likely not to go back to the White House until, you know, some January 20th or so.

And I think he generally wanted to take President Bush up on his offer to see the White House. And there was also another very important meeting going on in the East Wing with Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush.

Bush, Obama meet in Oval Office

Jeff Zeleny
The New York Times
These are the only two men who are getting these daily intelligence briefings, the exact same one now, so they are, you know, surely have something in common, speaking about the challenges on that front.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you about that in a minute, but everything looked warm and friendly, the pictures we saw. What have you learned about what went on in private?

JEFF ZELENY: One thing we learned is there was not only one Oval Office meeting; there was a second Oval Office meeting. So the first one lasted almost an hour.

And one of the things that President Bush likes to do to visitors in the Oval Office is sort of show them around. And he is using the desk that President Kennedy used, so we're told he showed Senator Obama that.

It was Senator Obama's first time -- President-elect Obama's first time in the Oval Office. So he showed him, you know, the desk, you know, the very historic desk, as well as the artwork all the way around. It's one of President Bush's sort of favorite things to do. He showed them all through that side of the building.

But substantively, they talked about, you know, the challenges that advisers on both sides said, focused on the economy and national security.

Now, these are the only two men who are getting these daily intelligence briefings, the exact same one now, so they are, you know, surely have something in common, speaking about the challenges on that front. But the economy, no question, is front and center.

And we're still probably going to be learning in the coming days what specifically they talked about. But, you know, it was only some two months ago where Mr. Obama was at the White House, you know, during this whole talk of the financial bailout package. So there's no question that that was a key agenda item.

Economy tops Obama's priorities

Jeff Zeleny
The New York Times
One of the things he definitely wants is extending the unemployment insurance benefits really to help, you know, all these new jobless Americans that are increasing really month by month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, on the Obama transition, I mean, he has already made it very clear, his first priority is getting a stimulus. He said, if it doesn't get passed by the time I become president, I want to do it right away. How much do we know about what would be in that stimulus?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, one of the things he definitely wants is extending the unemployment insurance benefits really to help, you know, all these new jobless Americans that are increasing really month by month, also, giving aid to states that are hurting in this financial meltdown or crisis, if you will.

Beyond that, there's not a whole lot of agreement yet between Republicans and congressional Democrats, so perhaps the more important meetings going on -- of course, we, you know, like to watch these symbolic ones going on at the White House, but it's what Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats are planning to do in the lame-duck congressional session.

Will he go back? Will he not? But more than likely, a lot of this will be done, you know, the third or fourth week in January, when Senator Obama becomes President Obama and is sworn into office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Any better sense now, Jeff, of what the Obama team is thinking about the auto industry? They've been asked about that; they've said it's important.

JEFF ZELENY: They have said it's important. And it is one of their sort of top priorities, that it's an essential part of the economic engine. We're not sure at this point what they can do specifically.

Mr. Obama was not all that sympathetic necessarily to the auto industry during the campaign. He said that they should be doing more. So he believes that cars should be more fuel-efficient, et cetera, but, I mean, it would be hard to believe that they would not agree to some type of a bailout, some type of a lend out here going forward, if the sector is in as much problems as it seems to be.

Obama weighs appointments

Jeff Zeleny
The New York Times
He had a secret meeting tonight before leaving Washington in a fire station at the hangar at the Washington Reagan National Airport. So we're not sure who was in that meeting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about this debate we keep reading about, whether to go big and ambitious, try to do a lot, or try to scale it back, because you've got -- today, there was a report the deficit, a trillion dollars next year, that they may have to scale things back?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, Mr. Obama and his team are still talking big. They're still talking about the things that -- all the things they were talking about on the campaign.

But I think one thing to watch is health care. How quickly will they bring health care up in the new Congress next year? Or will they put that on a slower track or the back burner?

One thing that they're definitely saying is that they're going forward with these middle-class tax cuts next year, so that is sort of item number one.

But there's no question that, even in the final weeks of the campaign, you would hear Mr. Obama saying, you know, some of these things may take time. We are going to have to tighten our belts. So as people tighten their belts, he's going to be, you know, certainly shortening his list.

But the list from Democrats on the Hill and interest groups is so large, there's no question that he has to figure out how to sort of rein in these expectations. And he hasn't done that quite yet.

Look for a speech or look for something, you know, for him to sort of signal a new direction, if not between now and January 20th, certainly in that big speech he'll give that day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, appointments. They've said no more -- no cabinet appointments we should expect this week. Is that right?

JEFF ZELENY: That is right, but there should be some senior-level White House staff appointments made this week. But just because there aren't any cabinet appointments, that does not mean that Mr. Obama is not interviewing anyone.

He had a secret meeting tonight before leaving Washington in a fire station at the hangar at the Washington Reagan National Airport. So we're not sure who was in that meeting...

JUDY WOODRUFF: We don't know with whom, OK.

JEFF ZELENY: ... but one would think that it may be a cabinet prospective nominee.

Mrs. Bush, Mrs. Obama meet

Jeff Zeleny
The New York Times
They spent a lot of time throughout the whole residence specifically focusing on the child's bedrooms, where Malia, who's 10, and Sasha, who's 7, will likely stay.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, most important, the meeting between Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Obama. What did you learn about that?

JEFF ZELENY: We're told that it was very warm. They spent a lot of time throughout the whole residence specifically focusing on the child's bedrooms, where Malia, who's 10, and Sasha, who's 7, will likely stay. It's been so long since there's been young children in the White House.

So they talked about that a lot, as well as Mrs. Bush apparently and Mrs. Obama stopped in the West Sitting Hall and talked a minute about how to raise older girls in the White House, as well, because, you know, even though Malia is only 10 years old, she'll be 14 before you know it.

So they were having a very warm conversation, as we're told. And it was the first time that they had met. So by all accounts, the meeting went well. And there probably will be more conversations to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I saw that Mrs. Obama said she had brought the girls for a tour several years ago, and they saw the dog, Barney, so the girls are already feeling comfortable moving in.

JEFF ZELENY: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

JEFF ZELENY: Thank you.