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Thanksgiving reflections for Bush, Obama

President George Bush is heading to Camp David for Thanksgiving, thankful for his almost-expired "privilege of serving as the president."
President-elect Barack Obama greets school children after making a surprise visit to St. Columbanus Catholic School on the South Side of Chicago, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President George Bush is heading to Camp David for Thanksgiving, thankful for his almost-expired "privilege of serving as the president."

President-elect Barack Obama is staying in Chicago to "have a whole bunch of people over to the house" and squeeze in some Christmas shopping.

On a holiday designed for reflection, one man, historically unpopular, is heading to a remote mountaintop with his family. The other, promising change, is surrounding himself with dozens of people in a bustling city.

Dressed casually in a leather jacket and black scarf on Wednesday, Obama handed out food to the needy at a Chicago church with wife Michelle and their two daughters, shaking hands and jovially telling people "you can call me Barack."

He followed that with a quick visit to a school next door, where he asked the excited kids, "Who's going to have turkey?" "Who's going to have green beans?" "Who's going to have sweet potato pie?"

Obama has shown a knack for symbolism, in this case following the Thanksgiving tradition of helping the poor, said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian who is working on a history of political spin.

"Here he's showing a different side of himself, the president as national conscience or moral authority. I think that's probably a good note for him to introduce in a transition period that's been so heavily focused on Wall Street and the financial system and these economic problems," he said. "He's not forgetting who these economic problems are hurting the most."

In an interview to be broadcast Wednesday night on ABC, the Obamas told Barbara Walters they were having 60 people, at least, to their Chicago home for the holiday.

Michelle Obama said she's not cooking — explaining that she gets "an out" because her husband ran for president.

For Bush, his final Thanksgiving in office is proving a time for nostalgia. He always reflects a bit at Thanksgiving, but he went further as he spared the Thanksgiving turkey, "Pumpkin," on Wednesday.

He gave thanks to troops and volunteers, to teachers and pastors, to all the American people. Then he gave thanks for his wife and twin daughters — "two Thanksgiving miracles who we were blessed with 27 years ago" — and that his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, was doing well after being hospitalized.

"Most of all," he said, "I thank the American people for the tremendous privilege of serving as the president."

But the occasion was also a chance for levity. A backup bird, named "Pecan" through an online vote, was nowhere to be seen. Undisclosed location, Bush joked.

In 2003, months after the Iraq war began, Bush surprised soldiers serving in Baghdad by showing up unannounced in their mess hall for the holiday meal.

The more private celebration this year is fitting his lame-duck status, Greenberg said, calling Bush's retreat from the spotlight "kind of like a mutual agreement between him and the American public."

"In a way it would be unseemly if he did anything too flamboyant or too showy," he said.

Lest the public read too much into it, Stephen Hess, author of a new book about presidential transitions, notes that Bush has remained "pretty active" since the election. And he says Obama, too, may end up at Camp David next year, if only to keep his travel from disrupting Thanksgiving traffic.

This Thanksgiving, Obama used the opportunity for a relatively rare public event with his wife and children, Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10 — and a chance for a little lesson for the kids.

"I want them to learn the importance of how fortunate they are and to make sure they're giving back," he said of bringing the girls to the church.

And what's he thankful for?

"I just want you to know what I'm thankful for is my family and my friends and my community," he told the schoolchildren. "That's the most important thing."