In Pope Francis’s visit, White House sees a chance to transcend politics

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.

Sep 18, 2015

President Obama meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014. When Francis arrives in the United States, he will get an airport welcome that few world leaders get: a plane-side greeting from the president and first lady. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

WASHINGTON D.C.: 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.

But he has an innate sense for the dramatic gesture that gets played and replayed on the Internet. Following his first Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Square, Francis left his popemobile and descended into the crowd to lift up and kiss a boy with cerebral palsy. The video of Dominic Gondreau and the pope played for most of the day on Fox News and CNN and was featured on the ABC and NBC nightly newscasts.

On a visit to Sri Lanka earlier this year, Francis dropped his planned schedule after a chance meeting at the airport with a ­Buddhist monk who invited him to his temple. The pope, unlike his predecessor, regularly poses for selfies with newly married couples and babies.

Those viral moments have defined Francis for many American Catholics who, in many cases, have only passing knowledge of his positions on climate change and poverty. A recent survey by the Associated Press found that only 40 percent of American Catholics were aware of the pope’s encyclical on climate change and that just 23 percent said that they had heard about it from their priests at Mass.

The flood of media coverage on the pope’s visit will probably give Americans a broader and deeper understanding of the pope’s message. But White House officials said that the pope’s trip probably won’t be defined by his speech to Congress, his appearance at the United Nations or his meeting with Obama at the White House.--The Washington Post

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