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Bush sets Oval Office meeting with Obama

Obama Transition
President-elect Barack Obama, wearing a baseball cap, heads from his Chicago home to the gym Thursday morning.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

President Bush and Barack Obama on Monday will hold their first substantive talks about the nation's daunting priorities as the transition to a Democratic administration accelerates.

Bush, soon to return to Texas after two terms in office, ordered employees on Thursday to ensure a smooth transfer of power to Obama. The transition is a delicate dance in which the White House keeps the president-elect in the loop, and even solicits his input, but the decisions remain solely the president's.

On Monday's discussion list for the current and future presidents: the financial crisis and the war in Iraq.

"We face economic challenges that will not pause to let a new president settle in," Bush told a gathering of hundreds of employees from the presidential bureaucracy, gathered on the back lawn of the White House.

"This will also be America's first wartime presidential transition in four decades," he said. "We're in a struggle against violent extremists determined to attack us, and they would like nothing more than to exploit this period of change to harm the American people."

That sobering depiction came as Bush and Obama firmed up plans for their first meeting since Obama defeated Republican John McCain in Tuesday's election.

Bush and first lady Laura Bush will greet Obama and his wife, Michelle, at the White House on Monday afternoon. Bush and the president-elect will meet in the Oval Office while the first lady gives Mrs. Obama a private tour of the White House residence.

"I thank him for reaching out in the spirit of bipartisanship," the president-elect said of Bush in a statement.

The Obamas' two children won't be there, but White House press secretary Dana Perino said, "We very much look forward to meeting them."

The Bush administration has already arranged security clearances for key Obama transition staffers and is providing work space and policy briefings as well. Career employees, who keep their jobs even when administrations change, have taken on extra work to prevent any disruption in essential services.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security caution that the U.S. is in a heightened state of alert against terrorism. The fear is that enemies could exploit the transition period to test the country's defenses, as Bush himself warned. No specific threat has been presented to the public.

No time wasted
Obama was quick out of the starting blocks on Wednesday, calling on Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a fellow Chicago politician and veteran of the Bill Clinton White House, to join him. On Thursday, Obama said that Emanuel, the hard-charging No. 4 Democrat in the House, had accepted the job to be his chief of staff.

The selection of the fiery Democrat marked a shift in tone for Obama, who chose more low-key leadership for his presidential campaign.

Even before the news was confirmed, House Republican Leader John Boehner issued a statement criticizing the choice.

"This is an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil, and govern from the center," Boehner said of Emmanuel.

Known for bluntness
In choosing Emanuel, the president-elect turned to a fellow Chicago politician with a far different style from his own, a man known for his bluntness as well as his single-minded determination.

After leaving the Clinton White House, Emanuel worked in investment banking, then won a Chicago-area House seat six years ago. In Congress, he moved quickly into the leadership. As chairman of the Democratic campaign committee in 2006, he played an instrumental role in restoring his party to power after 12 years in the minority.

Emanuel maintained neutrality during the long primary battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, not surprising given his long-standing ties to the former first lady and his Illinois connections with Obama.

The chief of staff position is a top White House appointee who serves as one of the closest advisers to the president and typically can decide who gains access to the president, while also developing administration policies.

Aside from Emanuel, several Obama aides said other White House officials were being lined up, including Robert Gibbs as the likely pick for press secretary. Gibbs has been Obama's longtime spokesman and confidant and was at Obama's side from his 2004 Senate campaign through the long days on the presidential campaign trail.

Kerry as secretary of state?Several Democrats said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who won a new six-year term on Tuesday, was angling for secretary of state. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.

Kerry's spokeswoman, Brigid O'Rourke, disputed the reports. "It's not true. It's ridiculous," she said.

Announcement of the transition team came in a written statement from the Obama camp.

The group is headed by John Podesta, who served as chief of staff under President Clinton; Pete Rouse, who has been Obama's chief of staff in the Senate; and Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the president-elect and campaign adviser.

Several Democrats described a sprawling operation well under way. Officials had kept deliberations under wraps to avoid the appearance of overconfidence in the weeks leading to Tuesday's election.

Lobbying promise
The official Obama campaign Web Site said no political appointees would be permitted to work on "regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years." It added that "no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration."

But almost exactly one year ago, on Nov. 3, 2007, candidate Obama went considerably further than that while campaigning in South Carolina.

"I don't take a dime of their money, and when I am president, they won't find a job in my White House," he said of lobbyists at the time.

Because they often have prior experience in government or politics, lobbyists have routinely filled out the list of potential appointees for past presidents of both parties.

Focus on Iraq?Former rival John McCain began discussing with senior aides what role he will play in the Senate now that he has promised to work with Obama in his concession speech.

One obvious focus will be the war in Iraq. After two years spent more on the campaign than in the Senate, McCain will return as the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. That will put the four-term Arizona senator in a position to influence Obama's plan to set a 16-month timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from combat in Iraq.

During the campaign, McCain staunchly opposed setting a deadline even as the Iraqi government began working with the Bush administration to do so.

But in conceding the presidency to Obama, McCain pledged "to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face."

Aides said they believed McCain would work well with Obama as president because much of his best work in the Senate had been done with Democrats, including a landmark campaign finance law he crafted with Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold.

Global challenges
The Obama administration will confront massive challenges both at home and abroad, as made clear on the first day after Obama's historic victory over McCain in Tuesday's election.

The U.S. stock market greeted his elevation to the pinnacle of American power by plunging nearly 500 points on more dire news about an economy in the throes of its worst crisis since the 1930s Great Depression.

And the Kremlin sounded off as well, with President Dmitry Medvedev declaring: "Mechanisms must be created to block mistaken, egoistical and sometimes simply dangerous decisions of certain members of the international community" — an apparent reference to the United States under President George W. Bush.

Medvedev issued the stark challenge even as he threatened to erect missiles along the Polish border if an Obama administration were to go forward with plans laid out by the Bush administration to create a missile shield in the Eastern Europe.

Before taking office in 10 weeks, Obama is planning a trip to Hawaii in December to get away with his family before their move to the White House — and to honor his grandmother, who died Sunday at her home there.