With Pope On the Way, President Obama Sees Opportunity to Transcend Politics

President Obama meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Obama meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Vice President Biden offered a glimpse earlier this week into how the White House, deeply frustrated by the gridlocked and bitter state of American politics, has come to view Pope Francis’s visit to the United States.

“The most popular man in the world is about to come to the United States of America,” Biden told a group of Hispanic Americans who had gathered at his residence. “The single most popular man in the world.”

It’s not simply Francis’s popularity that enthralls the White House but also his ability to transcend the rancor of U.S. politics in a way that consistently has eluded President Obama.

The big question for Obama and his advisers is whether the pope’s soaring popularity can ­ever-so-slightly shift the ground on some issues crucial to the White House and provide openings for the president in his waning months in office.

The pope has taken progressive positions — sometimes to the left of Obama, and well outside the mainstream of American political discourse — on issues such as criminal-justice reform, immigration and economic inequality. Earlier this year, he suggested that global warming, driven by overconsumption, materialism and greed, threatened to turn the Earth into “an immense pile of filth.”

Yet he remains beloved by Republicans, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who invited Francis to address a joint meeting of Congress next week.

“If Obama said some of the things that Francis says, he’d be labeled a Trotsky-ite,” said Candida Moss, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “It must be amazing for him to be able to say that I am just to the right of Pope Francis on this issue.”

Obama and Francis haven’t spent much time together over the two years of Francis’s papacy. The two leaders sat together at Francis’s spare Vatican desk for about 45 minutes last year, when Obama said, “The bulk of the time was spent discussing two central concerns” — the plight of “the poor, the marginalized and growing inequality” and the challenge of war in the world today.

Francis, meanwhile, has shown little interest in spending long hours, during his first trip to the United States, in meetings with Obama or other senior White House officials.

“We think that we are the center of the world here in Washington,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “We aren’t the center of Pope Francis’s world.”

And that may provide the White House its best opportunity to open the debate on a series of hopelessly gridlocked issues that are at the core of Obama’s agenda. The pope’s power hasn’t come so much from his words — often he will toss aside his prepared remarks — but from his actions. Francis has said he doesn’t know how to use a computer and has never owned a cellphone. “I’m a dinosaur,” he said in 2013.

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SOURCE: Greg Jaffe and Juliet Eilperin 
The Washington Post

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