Mitt Romney to lunch with President Obama in White House. Why?

The White House announced Wednesday that Mitt Romney will drop by for lunch Thursday. It helps President Obama look gracious and bipartisan while helping Romney rebuild his status.

Jason Reed/REUTERS/File
Mitt Romney (l.) and President Obama talk at the conclusion of the final US presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., last month. Mr. Obama will host Mr. Romney for a private lunch at the White House on Thursday – their first meeting since Obama won the Nov. 6 presidential election.

Stilted conversation over scallops, anyone? President Obama has invited Mitt Romney to lunch at the White House on Thursday, and while we’re sure the food will be delectable, we’re not sure how much genuine communication will occur.

But is that really the point? Instead, both parties might just want a public burying of mutual animosities. It could be good for them, and the country. Perhaps this will become a US tradition, along with the presidential turkey pardon and the lighting of the White House Christmas tree. Every four years, the combatants in the just-past election will gather in the private dining room next to the Oval Office and air their grievances. (Yes, that’s a “Festivus” reference. If you don’t know what that means, look it up.)

But let’s back up a bit. The White House announced the meal Wednesday in a statement released by spokesman Jay Carney.

“It will be the first opportunity they have had to visit since the election,” said Carney, adding that there would be “no press coverage of the meeting.”

He means no press coverage of the actual words they exchange, of course. That’s because they don’t matter nearly as much as press coverage of the mere existence of the event.

Following his reelection Mr. Obama said nice things about his ex-opponent, including that he’d like to sit down with him and hear Mr. Romney’s ideas about how to improve economic prospects for middle-income Americans.

“He presented some ideas during the campaign that I actually agree with,” said Obama in his postelection press conference.

It behooves Obama to be gracious, of course. With large margins of Americans telling pollsters they want Democrats and Republicans to work together, the lunch offer is a big flashing light of a signal that Obama intends to do just that. Or look like he’s doing that, at least. It could set a tone of civil discourse that the administration may want to continue to project in the months ahead.

For Romney the lunch must now loom as a necessary but emotionally difficult task. Only weeks ago he thought the Oval Office would be his workspace. Now it’s just an exclusive cafe that’s deigned to admit him for a visit. It would be churlish for him to turn down the offer – good losing is part of sportsmanship, as anyone who ran the Olympics must know. But he would not be human if he didn’t look around and think how his own family portraits would have looked on that desk.

By accepting Obama’s offer Romney, too, shows that he understands Americans want their politicians to work together. The running-for-office part of his own career may be over, but he bolsters the Republican brand by appearing, which could help in “fiscal cliff” negotiations. And Romney needs to rebuild his status within the GOP, as well as within the country – lots of Republicans have complained about his campaign, and his postelection analysis that Obama won by giving people “gifts.”

A photo of the two 2012 opponents deep in conversation over fennel and endive salad could provide a better coda for Romney’s losing effort, perhaps counteracting some of the bitterness evident in the “gift” remark.

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