WASHINGTON President-elect Barack Obama urged President George W. Bush to immediately provide extra help to struggling U.S. automakers in the men's first face-to-face meeting at the White House, aides to the Democrat say.
Obama's aides said the president-elect brought up the issue with Bush during their two-hour talks on Monday, expressing his view that immediate action was needed, not just to help the U.S. companies but also the broader economy because of their enormous reach.
Obama raised the idea of an administration point person on autos with a portfolio aimed at improving the long-term health of the companies. Bush repeated his position, recently stated by staff, that he is open to helping the automakers.
Also, amid discussions over whether a new economic stimulus measure is needed, Obama focused on his desire for it while Bush stressed that his main priority for any post-election action out of Congress is passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia, said people familiar with the conversation between the two men. The sources declined to be named publicly because of the private nature of the talks.
Reflecting the delicate dance of a meeting between outgoing and incoming presidents one still in charge and one about to be Bush repeated his position that he is open to helping the automakers without making firm commitments.
"In no way did president the suggest that there was a quid pro quo," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. But, she added, "he did talk about the merits of free trade."
The Illinois senator's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said only that the discussion involved "the broad health of the industry" and was not just limited to any one of the three largest car makers.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said that Bush described the meeting as "constructive, relaxed and friendly," covering unspecified problems at home and abroad, and said he personally pledged a smooth transition.
There clearly is momentum building for some new aid to automakers.
In September, Congress approved $25 billion in loans to automakers to help them retool plans to build more fuel-efficient vehicles, and thus become more solid and profitable competitors in the global marketplace. Though the administration is working to give automakers quick access to that money, it still would likely not come fast enough or in big enough amounts to satisfy the drowning companies.
Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked the administration to consider expanding the $700 billion bailout for financial firms to include car companies. The administration has concluded automakers aren't eligible under the main, stock-purchase part of the program.
And at a news conference last Friday, Obama called automakers "the backbone of American manufacturing" and said he hoped the administration would "do everything it can to accelerate the retooling assistance." Perino said Monday it was open to that, and would listen to lawmakers' ideas for making more loans available or for clarifying the bailout law to make clear that other industries beyond banks qualify.
The debate comes as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are burning through cash and bleeding jobs. Analysts are predicting that G.M., in particular, might not last the year without a government bailout.
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 he will take over in just 10 weeks' time.
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.
Such White House meetings have a history going back decades, and the public emphasis of the day was the comity and cooperation that has been evident between the Bush and Obama teams since last week's election, despite the harsh anti-Bush component of Obama's presidential bid.
But there are lingering tensions, nevertheless.
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.
On Tuesday, Obama planned to place a wreath at a Chicago memorial to fallen U.S. warriors, marking Veterans Day in a country fighting two wars ahead of a meeting with his top advisers. Veterans Day is a U.S. holiday that coincides with Armistice Day, which is the anniversary of the end of World War I.
Aside from the brief public appearance, Obama planned to huddle in private with top advisers planning for the transfer of presidential power in January.
His aides say no Cabinet positions are to be announced this week, though White House staff positions may come later in the week.
Aides say Obama talks with Podesta and other transition committee members several times a day, as well as with Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman who was tapped for White House chief of staff.
Obama is expected to remain in Chicago all week, and aides say he doesn't plan to meet with world leaders in the United States this weekend for a summit on the global economic crisis.
"He's very interested and thought it was a good idea to have the meeting, but ... there's only one president at a time, and we will stay up to date and briefed on what's going on but will not be a participant," Gibbs said, adding that "it's a possibility" that Obama advisers will take part in the meeting.