By Justin Sink - 03/27/14 07:12 AM EDT
The biggest global star of the millennium’s first decade met his successor at the Vatican on Thursday.
Barack Obama, who wowed the world in 2008, shook the hand of the first Latin American Pope — a gesture fittingly akin to passing the baton of hope and change.
"Wonderful meeting you,” the president said, as the pair smiled and shook hands in the ornate Small Throne Room. They then proceeded into the pope’s library, sitting at a wooden desk and greeting a pair of interpreters who would join them for the roughly hour-long meeting.
"It is a great honor. I'm a great admirer," Obama added. "Thank you so much for receiving me.”
Obama also conveyed his greetings from his daughters and first lady Michelle Obama, who were unable to join him on the trip but had previously met Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, will also donate seeds that will yield several tons of produce to a charity of the pope’s choosing.
The gift was loaded with symbolism for a president eager to grow a friendship with the new pope. The White House is eager to co-opt some of Francis’s star power for Obama, from whom the gilt of popularity has flaked away in his second term in the Oval Office.
The president cited Francis last year in demanding action to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and a reciprocal note of approval from the pontiff would unquestionably be welcomed by an administration struggling to move its agenda in an election year.
Some 85 percent of American Catholics and 63 percent of all Americans approve of the pope, according to a survey by the Saint Leo (Fla.) University Polling Institute. Just 42 percent of Americans approved of the president in the latest Gallup poll.
But the wide gap between Obama’s and Francis’s prescriptions was probably more apparent when the two men came face to face.
The Supreme Court heard arguments this week over the ObamaCare mandate that requires employers to include birth control coverage in employee health plans. Catholic hospitals and universities vigorously oppose the mandate, which they say infringes on religious freedom.
Pope Francis and the Church oppose abortion and gay marriage — two social issues Obama has warmly embraced, as he and his fellow Democrats seek to win support from young and female voters.
The White House and Vatican suggested Thursday’s visit was a getting-to-know one another meeting, but experts say papal-presidential visits often go off script.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI slipped Obama pamphlets on stem cell research and birth control, when the president visited the Vatican.
A similar move by Francis, who often deliberately departs from his expected script, would complicate the president’s attempts to co-opt the pope’s popularity.
“Pope Francis would be unlikely to downplay, ignore or gloss over issues that are of deep moral concern to him,” said Lawrence Cunningham, an emeritus professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
The White House said the president has long looked forward to the meeting, and Obama hoped to discuss the pair’s shared “commitment to address issues like income inequality.”
“The president, like many people around the world, has been inspired by the first year that Pope Francis has had by the way in which he has motivated people around the world by his message of inclusion, of equality, which again has deep meaning for people both of the Catholic faith, but people of different faiths all over the world,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
“It is a opportunity for them to get to know each other personally, for the president to hear from the pope about what he is trying to do around the world and, really, for the president to express his appreciation for the pope’s leadership on the range of challenges he’s highlighted in his first year.”
But the Vatican is aware that Obama has more to gain from the meeting. A senior Vatican official told The New York Times that the U.S. should not expect the type of embrace Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist agenda got from John Paul II in 1982.
“We’re not in the old days of the great alliance,” the official said.
Candida Moss, a theology professor at Notre Dame, said U.S. Catholics have been “spoiled by the memory and legacy of the comfortable relationship between John Paul II and Reagan.”
“We should remember that official diplomatic ties between the U.S. and the Holy See are in their infancy,” Moss said. “Good relations between the world’s most active military superpower and a religious organization grounded in anti-war foreign policy can never be assumed.”
Most experts predicted that the leaders would focus most their time on areas where they have common ground.
James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College pointed to the way Francis handled his first meeting with Argentine President Cristina Fernández, whom he frequently clashed with during his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires.
Francis invited his former political foe to his first official audience and said he would not visit his native country before the next round of elections — a move that would have undoubtedly rallied votes against her government.
“He takes a more diplomatic approach; he looks for things they can agree on,” Bretzke said. “I wouldn’t expect him to be grilling the president over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. If he does, he could raise it in a nuanced way, like respect for religious freedoms.”
--This report was first published on Wednesday at 8:25 p.m. and last updated on Thursday at 7:12 a.m.