Less than than a week after he was elected the next president, Barack Obama and wife Michelle were welcomed to the White House yesterday by George and Laura Bush – a political rite of passage that has happened unusually early because of the economic crisis, the war in Iraq, and the general consensus that this will be one of the most important transitions in recent US history.
Arriving 11 minutes early, Mr Obama stepped from his limousine outside the South Portico and warmly greeted the Republican leader whose "failed policies" of the past eight years he has been denouncing on the campaign trail for months. There were handshakes and smiles for the cameras from the two men, both sporting dark suits and blue ties.
Their wives' dresses matched the autumnal leaves on the ground, Michelle's figure-hugging red dress, ruched at the front; Laura's more matronly brown number worn with a belt and ruched at the back.
Crowds were pressed against the railing, on the crisp afternoon, eager for the briefest of glimpses of the first African America inhabitants of Washington's most famous address.
As the outgoing and incoming First Couple entered the building, Mr Obama draped his arm over Mr Bush's shoulder. The ladies departed for a tour of the mansion's private quarters to talk drapes and domestic niceties while the men headed for "substantive talks" in the Oval Office.
Having already had a father as president, George W Bush already knew his way around every nook and cranny of the White House by the time he visited to take over from Bill Clinton. Mr Obama has been to the White House before, most recently in September for an emergency bailout summit but yesterday was the first time he had ever set foot in the Oval Office.
The 43rd and soon to be 44th presidents strolled along the White House Colonnade that leads to the inner sanctum for the benefit of the cameras, Mr Bush looking awkward and tense, as a smiling Mr Obama made small talk.
A handover of presidential power is never easy and it was with an eye to the history books that both men met for 90 minutes yesterday. They both have a strong interest in a smooth official transition on 20 January. At 47 , the incoming Democrat is one of the youngest and relatively inexperienced presidents in America's history, taking over in the midst of a global financial crisis, with two wars raging.
It was their first face-to-face encounter since Mr Obama roundly defeated the Republican torch-bearer John McCain. The pair were not expected to make any public statements, and no aides were expected to sit in on their discussion which was expected to focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and America's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Although the Obamas had left their daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, seven, behind at school in Chicago for the visit, the first stop on Laura and Michelle's tour of the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was the two bedrooms that have been used by generations of presidential children. The suites face north and look over Lafayette Park, which has often been the scene of anti-war protests in the past eight years. Mrs Bush telephoned Mrs Obama in advance to say what a wonderful place the White House is to raise a young family.
As excited as the capital is about the inauguration of the President-elect, the imminent arrival of the Obama children in Washington has led to a mad scramble by the city's elite private schools eager to have them enrol. The two young Obamas are set to become the hottest thing to hit Washington society since the Kennedys rolled into town in 1961.
White House moves: Turbulent transitions
*George Washington to John Adams
Washington's servants held a series of parties in 1797, between Washington leaving his house and John Adams arriving, wrecking the furniture and stealing the silver and china.
*Herbert Hoover to Franklin D Roosevelt
The handover between Roosevelt and Hoover was notoriously bad-tempered. By the time Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, Hoover was the most hated man in America. For the swearing-in ceremony, Hoover was stony-faced as the men travelled in an open car.
*Dwight Eisenhower to John F Kennedy
Kennedy's 1960 inauguration was a generational change. He said Eisenhower was an "old ass-hole") while Eisenhower saw Kennedy as weak and unready: "I will do almost anything to avoid turning my chair and country over to Kennedy," he said during the election campaign.
*Bill Clinton to George Bush
Bush was geared to put his stamp on the presidency after the 2000 Florida recount and the Supreme Court decision in his favour in Bush v Gore. But before he took over, the Clinton team vandalised offices and took off with doorknobs, a presidential seal and 60 "W" keys from computer keyboards. When Bush called on Clinton, the meeting went well, except for the unexpected presence of Al Gore, who had reason enough to look sullen.
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