Obama and McCain meet amid bipartisan symbolism

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Lest there be any danger that the public miss the gathering’s bipartisan theme, Monday’s meeting between President-elect Barack Obama and Senator John McCain had an American flag between the two men and flags flanking them on either side.

“We believe that Americans of all parties want and need their leaders to come together and change the bad habits of Washington so that we can solve the common and urgent challenges of our time,” the men said in a joint statement released after they met.

The former adversaries added that they “had a productive conversation today about the need to launch a new era of reform where we take on government waste and bitter partisanship in Washington in order to restore trust in government, and bring back prosperity and opportunity for every hardworking American family.”

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Rahm and Lindsey

Each man brought one aide to the three flag gathering, held at the Presidential Transition Office on the 38th floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building in downtown Chicago.  Seated around a low wood coffee table with the former candidates were Rep. Rahm Emanuel [D] of Illinois who will be Obama’s White House chief of staff, and McCain’s loyal sidekick during the long campaign, Senator Lindsey Graham [R] of South Carolina.

At a pre-meeting photo op, reporters asked about the session’s expected outcome.  Mr. Obama said, “We’re going to have a good conversation about how we can do some work together to fix up the country, and also to offer thanks to Sen. McCain for the outstanding service he’s already rendered.”

Obviously

McCain was in a taciturn mode. When asked whether he would help Mr. Obama with his administration, the former Republican standard bearer said, “Obviously.”

When reporters tried to ask a question about the auto industry rescue plan being considered this week by the US Senate, press handlers shouted them down.  That prompted Mr. Obama to say with a smile, “You’re incorrigible” as the media was ushered out.  According to the Associated Press, Obama told McCain “the national press is tame compared to the Chicago press.”

It is not known what – if anything – of substance took place at the session.  In their joint statement, the men offered few specifics.  “We hope to work together in the days and months ahead on critical challenges like solving our financial crisis, creating a new energy economy, and protecting our nation’s security,” the statement said.

Both men have something to gain from working together.

Major items

The new president will have strong majorities in both houses of Congress.  So Democrats will be able to pass some measures without Republican votes.  But major items, like providing universal health care or comprehensive action to deal with global warming – will require bipartisan support.  Senator McCain has a record of working across the aisle to forge compromises on major issues and could be a valuable ally for President Obama.

For Senator McCain, the occasional alliance with a new President on a major issue could be a way to burnish his standing with independents who did not like the Senator’s move rightward to appeal to the Republican base during the election.

As the Fix points out, being a bipartisan deal broker is only one of the options McCain can choose.  He also could opt to serve as the voice of the opposition to Obama’s legislative agenda or simply wait to retire from the Senate in 2010.

Monday’s meeting appears to be without recent precedent in terms of how soon after the election it was held and the fact the subject was not a transition between the two men.   For example, President George Bush did not meet with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry after the 2004 election until the following year when the Boston Red Sox made a White House visit.

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