World's two most recognized anti-capitalists meet in Rome
The White House is calling it "The Francis Bump" - the desperate hope that by associating with Pope Francis and his harsh assessment of capitalism which both men believe is to blame for income inequality, Obama and Democrats will benefit at the polls.
But the real benefit for Obama from the meeting comes from having some of the Pope's celebrity rub off on his tarnished personae where he has gone from superstar in Europe to the forgotten man.
President Barack Obama was once the biggest superstar on the international stage. On Thursday, he headed here to benefit from the popularity of his replacement: Pope Francis.
The 50-minute meeting was a rare chance for Obama to associate himself with a world leader whose cool factor far outweighs his own, and it comes at a critical time in his presidency. The White House is still recovering from what aides call a “lost year,” and the president’s job approval ratings at home are dipping to new lows.
“Wonderful meeting you,” Obama said as the pope greeted him in the Small Throne Room, just outside the Papal Library. The pair, plus two interpreters, then walked into the library and took seats on opposite sides of the pope’s desk.
“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” the president said. “Thank you so much for receiving me.” He also sent regards from first lady Michelle Obama and his daughters, who met Pope Benedict XVI during a 2009 visit here.
After their meeting, the two men exchanged gifts. Obama offered a custom-made box of seeds, acknowledging Francis’s decision to open up the private papal gardens to the public. “If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” the president said.
Unmentioned during their talk was the row between the Vatican and the White House over the Obamacare contraception mandate.
The contraceptive mandate has strained his relationship back home with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it came up at a January meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Vatican counterpart, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. If Francis presses Obama on the mandate, the contraceptive controversy could distract from the White House’s aim to show common cause with the pope on issues that Obama still hopes to advance in his second term.
Obama didn’t plan to bring up the contraceptive mandate issue, a White House official said ahead of meeting, but the president would be willing to field any issues the pope brings up.
The two are like oil and water. Obama sees income inequality as a political construct, employed to breed resentment among voters. Francis sees the issue far more as a third world leader would - as a problem where the system is rigged to keep people in below-subsistence poverty with no chance of advancement. Francis has a dim view of capitalism because he hasn't really seen it. Obama has seen it and resents the success of others that he believes is achieved on the backs of the poor. Are they really "kindred spirits"?