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The Awkward Post-Election White House Lunch

President George W. Bush shakes hands with Nancy Pelosi during their post-election meeting at the White House in November 2006.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President George W. Bush shakes hands with Nancy Pelosi during their post-election meeting at the White House in November 2006.

President Obama is having lunch with congressional leaders at the White House on Friday. This sort of post-election sit-down after power shifts away from the president's party has become something of a Washington tradition. An awkward one.

"Hey Mitch, can you pass the biscuits?"

"And while you're at it, what about tax reform?"

Oh, who are we kidding? They probably don't serve buttery biscuits at this White House. And we may never find out exactly what President Obama and congressional Republicans discuss over lunch.

But if history is a guide, they'll come out and describe it using polite terms like other leaders have following similar post-election get-togethers:

"I thought it was a very positive meeting," former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once said.

"We both extended the hand of friendship," said former speaker Nancy Pelosi.

President Bill Clinton meets with Sen. Bob Dole (left) and Rep. Newt Gingrich at the White House in December 1994.
Luke Frazza / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
President Bill Clinton meets with Sen. Bob Dole (left) and Rep. Newt Gingrich at the White House in December 1994.

And, "I would call it a very constructive and very friendly conversation," came from former President George W. Bush.

"Kumbaya with an edge," is what Sheila Burke calls it. She was chief of staff to Bob Dole when he became majority leader of the Senate in 1994 and had his own White House meeting with Gingrich and President Bill Clinton.

"There's no question that there's always some awkwardness when there's been opposition or bitterness. ... But these are folks who are professionals and people who you know, at the heart of it, want to legislate," she says.

These meetings happen behind closed doors. And, she says, they can be frank. The president doesn't want to wave a white flag and give up on his agenda. But the new majority has an agenda of its own and a mandate from voters.

Bob Dole spoke at the microphones in the White House driveway after his meeting with Clinton: "I think the president understands that we're going to hit the ground running."

It was contentious at first, but ultimately they did come together, most notably on welfare reform.

When Nancy Pelosi went to the White House in 2006, President Bush congratulated her on becoming the first female speaker of the House.

"The congresswoman's party won, but the challenges still remain," he said.

Pelosi told Bush to expect a raft of bills from the Democratic Congress, including one to raise the minimum wage. "We've made history. Now we have to make progress," she said.

Bush signed those bills into law, cementing what John Lawrence says was a solid working relationship. Lawrence was Pelosi's chief of staff. He says the strength of that relationship was proven in 2008 during the financial crisis when at Bush's request Pelosi pushed through the financial industry rescue known as TARP.

"That level of trust and collaboration could not have been constructed if there had not been a harmonious working relationship, not withstanding policy differences," Lawrence says.

There are plenty of policy differences for Obama to discuss with the GOP leaders at lunch this afternoon, from Obamacare to immigration. But in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough seemed optimistic.

"Judging from the conversations that he, the president, has been having and many of us have been having with our colleagues up on the Hill, I think it should be a productive conversation."

No word on whether any biscuits or Kentucky bourbon are on the menu.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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