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Senator Barack Obama, greeting President Bush at the White House in February 2005.

Senator Barack Obama, greeting President Bush at the White House in February 2005.

WASHINGTON — For nearly two years on the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama rarely missed a chance to take a swipe at President Bush. The name George W. Bush invariably followed the phrase “failed policies” in Mr. Obama’s speeches. “When George Bush steps down,” Mr. Obama once declared, “the world is going to breathe a sigh of relief.”

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, right, and President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in 1980.
On Monday, Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, may find himself conveniently forgetting those words — or at least delicately stepping around the fact that he had said them. As the president-elect, he will be welcomed at the White House as an honored guest of its current occupant, Mr. Bush, for a meeting that could be as awkward as it is historic.

In a time-honored tradition of American democracy, Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, will receive a tour of their new home from Mr. Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush. Then the men will split off to begin the formal transfer of power, all the more urgent this year because of the financial crisis. Mr. Obama has said he expects a “substantive conversation between myself and the president.”

But there will also be a subtext to the session: the personal chemistry between two leaders whose worldviews are miles apart. The ritual visit is occurring uncommonly early this year, less than a week after Mr. Obama handily defeated Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was the Republican nominee and Mr. Bush’s preferred candidate. Emotions may still be raw.

“I’m not going to anticipate problems,” Mr. Obama said Friday at his first news conference as president-elect. “I’m going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship.”

Mr. Bush, the president-elect, visiting with President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.

Mr. Bush, the president-elect, visiting with President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have had little chance to forge the kind of personal relationship that might prompt a smooth handoff. In his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Mr. Obama wrote less than admiringly of his first face-to-face encounter with the president, at a White House breakfast for new senators after the 2004 election, where Mr. Bush outlined his second-term agenda.

“The president’s eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty,” Mr. Obama wrote. “As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring.”

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, was privately critical of Mr. Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary race, telling friends that he thought Mr. Obama’s chief rival for the party’s nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, was “more experienced and more ready to be president,” said one friend of Mr. Bush’s who had such a conversation. But Mr. Obama ran a good campaign — Mr. Bush is someone who appreciates that — and the election last week might have eased his doubts.

“President Bush is a realist,” said this friend, who spoke anonymously to disclose his private conversation with the president. “He has a way of coming to grips with things and moving on. The people have spoken.”

For Mr. Bush, the meeting has a distinct upside: the chance to take the edge off his unpopularity. Democrats are already praising him as gracious for his post-election speech in the Rose Garden, where he said it would be a “stirring sight” to see the Obama family move into the White House. The meeting on Monday will give Mr. Bush an opportunity to produce lasting images of that graciousness.

“The important thing he gets out of it,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said, “is a public perception of him as somebody who is leaving in classy fashion, by opening his house and his information and his government. He wants to leave on a note that says he did everything possible to help this next president run the country.”

But such meetings can be fraught with political and personal danger. On Inauguration Day in 2001, President Bill Clinton invited Mr. Bush for coffee before the ceremony but kept his ever-punctual successor waiting for 10 minutes, recalled Mr. Bush’s first press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Even more uncomfortable was the presence of Vice President Al Gore, who lost the presidential election to Mr. Bush after a bitterly contested Florida recount.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, right, and President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in 1980.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, right, and President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in 1980.

“Clinton was his normal gregarious self, but Vice President Gore was not a happy camper,” Mr. Fleischer said. “I think it was a very sour moment for him, and you could kind of feel it in the room.”

In 1980, after President Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan, the two met at the White House. Mr. Carter came away feeling that Mr. Reagan had not been paying attention.

“President Carter was kind of taken aback by the meeting with Reagan,” said Jody Powell, Mr. Carter’s former press secretary. “There was a point where he sort of wandered off and asked questions that seemed to be only tangentially related to what they were talking about.”

And though the Carter White House had offered to share information about efforts to end the Iranian hostage crisis, Mr. Powell said, “My impression was that they wanted us to handle it without them being involved enough to have to take responsibility for whatever happened.”

So, too, may it be with Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama over the economy. Mr. Bush has invited world leaders to Washington on Friday and Saturday for an international conference on the economy. Mr. Obama and his team have declined to attend. Mr. Obama supports a new economic stimulus package; the Bush White House is cool to that idea.

The White House says Mr. Obama has been there seven times during Mr. Bush’s tenure, most recently in September for a much-publicized meeting on the $700 billion financial rescue package. That session blew up when House Republicans, backed by Mr. McCain, balked at the plan. Curiously enough, Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush were on the same side.

Perhaps Mr. Obama will remind Mr. Bush of that when he sees him on Monday. Or perhaps he will remind Mr. Bush of another encounter, at a White House reception in January 2005 when, according to Mr. Obama’s book, the affable president offered a dollop of hand sanitizer — “Not wanting to seem unhygienic,” Mr. Obama wrote, “I took a squirt” — and then pulled him aside for some unsolicited political advice.

“You’ve got a bright future, very bright,” Mr. Bush began, by Mr. Obama’s account. The president went on to warn the new senator that his celebrity status could hurt him: “Everybody’ll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean? So watch yourself.”

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With her bold, individual fashion choices, Michelle Obama reflects a modern way of dressing.

THE LOOK: With her bold, individual fashion choices, Michelle Obama reflects a modern way of dressing.

The soon-to-be first lady has forged a unique look, mixing designer labels and mall classics. And there are signs she might get America shopping again.

If the black-and-red dress Michelle Obama wore for her husband’s victory speech Tuesday is any indication, she is poised to be her own kind of style icon in the White House. The straight-from-the-spring-runway dress, which she paired with a black cardigan, was a major statement, the patriotic red bursting out of black like a firecracker out of the night sky. You either loved it or hated it, but you couldn’t ignore it.

Obama, 44, proved that unlike many other first ladies, she does not intend to fade into the background. The high-end, intricately embroidered dress that launched a thousand blog posts is by American designer Narciso Rodriguez, who first gained notice for his clothes for the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, most notably, her wedding dress.

Similar runway styles cost $3,500 or more, but Obama’s wardrobe is not merely a collection of big names and bigger price tags.

Obama combines youth and beauty with an innate sense of what to wear. She has worn clothes by several American designers on the campaign trail, but she’s mixed them with cheap-chic finds, suggesting she will have a more down-to-earth fashion identity than any recent first lady.

Not only is Obama’s high-low style modern, it’s right for right now. She reflects the American-led democratization of fashion that has revolutionized the way the world dresses by making designer names available in Target and JC Penney. It’s a more sensible approach to spending that’s in tune with the economic times.

The View

“She will be able to have access to designer dresses, but she could also be a role model if she can talk to Middle America about clothes that are not expensive but look great,” says presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has written books about Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, among others.

At the high end, the teal sheath ($795) she wore with a starburst brooch at the Democratic National Convention was designed by Maria Pinto, a Chicago-based designer who sells to Saks Fifth Avenue, among other stores. Pinto told the Chicago Tribune that retail orders for her pieces have increased 45% within the last 12 months and attributes some of that rise to the first-lady-in-waiting. Obama’s rose-print convention dress ($1,250) was by Thakoon Panichgul, a young New York designer who sells to Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom and has a line landing in Target on Christmas Day.

But Obama is a real fashion enthusiast, someone who enjoys the thrill of the hunt for that perfect $30 black-and-white-checked Gap sundress like the one she wore on the Fourth of July.

With retail sales sliding and a difficult holiday season ahead, there is already evidence that Obama could get America shopping again. There’s even a fashion fansite dedicated to Obama at www.mrs-o.org.

“No matter what she does, it’s going to be good for retail because people are focused on her and what she’s wearing,” says David Wolfe, creative director for the Doneger Group, a trend forecasting firm. “And she isn’t so perfect she’s frightening.”

After Obama wore a $148 Donna Ricco sundress on “The View,” White House/Black Market sold 2,500 of the dresses, according to a company spokesperson. She name-checked J. Crew on ” The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” pointing out that she had bought her $148 Pembridge dot pencil skirt and $89.99 color-block cardigan online. Both styles sold out on the J. Crew site the next day.

“She’s taken the idea of what a first lady should be and turned it on its head,” says J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons. “Before Michelle Obama, everyone had the idea that you had to be suited up and running with the crowd to be taken seriously. It’s fabulous to see her on the cover of a magazine in a hot pink dress. She’s not afraid to step out in something unusual.”

Unlike France’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former fashion model who has made headlines for her fashion sense over the last year and often appears in Dior, Obama is not devoted to one label. She has the confidence of a career woman, someone who’s accomplished on her own without her husband by her side. And as a member of the post-feminist generation, she has the luxury of not having to worry that her interest in clothes will make people take her less seriously.

Goodwin can quickly give a style run-down for various first ladies: “You think about Eleanor Roosevelt who went out sometimes with her hairnet on, and still became the most important first lady in the history of the country,” she says. “Mamie Eisenhower had some sort of pearls, but it’s hard to think of her or Bess Truman as style icons.

” Hillary Clinton told me when Jackie Kennedy was giving her fashion advice, she said not to let designers define you. Let them give you recommendations, and find your own style. Then Hillary deadpanned, ‘But I don’t have my own style.’ ”

We love Hillary!

We love Hillary!

That’s not an issue for Obama. The pitches are already pouring in from fashion companies about how to get the “Michelle Obama look” — the brooches, the pearls, the form-fitting shift dresses. Add a hair flip to Obama’s retro femininity, and it’s no wonder she’s been compared to Jacqueline Kennedy.

But Kennedy’s style was rooted in haute couture. She was a reflection of a time when America still had to prove it could be a cultural center on par with Europe, with all the fine music, art, food and fashion that goes with that. So she impressed the world by speaking French and wearing versions of Givenchy dresses that she worked with American designer Oleg Cassini to replicate.

The famously size-2 Nancy Reagan was roundly criticized for spending too much money on high-end clothes by Los Angeles designer James Galanos and others. Her intricately beaded dresses reflected the opulence of the 1980s but were not anything the rest of us could relate to.

While the world has been transfixed by celebrity culture for the last decade thanks to the tyranny of the stylist, Obama may help shift the focus to real-world wardrobes. She could be influential when it comes to inspiring women to develop a personal style and to think about the kind of messages clothing choices can convey. Obama knows what works for her. Dresses are a signature. The look is fresh, and they flatter her figure. And during the campaign, they set her apart from the St. John pantsuit-wearing Washington pack.

She also thinks about appropriateness, something that is missing in the sartorial dialogue of so many Americans. An inexpensive sundress is more appropriate to wear to a parade than a stuffy pantsuit, or an expensive frock you might spill food on.

“That’s what you are really looking for in a first lady,” Goodwin says. “The question is whether something is suitable, classy and fits the occasion.”

Speaking of occasions, the armchair quarterbacking about Obama’s inaugural dress has already started. Could it be Zac Posen, or will she go home to Pinto? Laura Bush stuck to old-guard designer Oscar de la Renta for her gown in 2005. Regardless, something tells me Washington is about to become a very stylish place.

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Nancy Reagan stands with Larry King

Nancy Reagan stands with Larry King

It worked out well ~ a good chance to have a nice chat with Mrs. Reagan, [I kind of believed it], just about ~ about. Nancy Reagan’s husband Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest Presidents of our time.

We are definitely going to enjoy an Obama presidency!

WASHINGTON (AP) — President-elect Obama called Nancy Reagan on Friday to apologize for joking that she held seances in the White House.

At a news conference in Chicago, Obama said he had spoken with all the living presidents as he prepares to take office in January. Then he smiled and said, “I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about doing any seances.”

The 87-year-old former first lady had consulted with astrologers during her husband’s presidency. But she did not hold conversations with the dead.

Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the president-elect later called Mrs. Reagan “to apologize for the careless and offhanded remark.” She said Obama “expressed his admiration and affection for Mrs. Reagan that so many Americans share, and they had a warm conversation.”

It actually wasn’t Nancy Reagan who was linked to conversations with the dead; it was Obama’s top Democratic challenger for the presidency, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

In either case, use of the word “seance” might be overstated.

Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer to help set her husband’s schedule, wrote former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan. The revelation created a furor and President Reagan even broke with his policy of not commenting on books by former White House staffers.

“No policy or decision in my mind has ever been influenced by astrology,” Reagan said.

In his book “The Choice,” Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward described how Clinton consulted with a spiritual adviser who led her through imaginary conversations with her personal hero, Eleanor Roosevelt. Newsweek magazine, which was promoting the book, characterized the visits as “seances,” a term that White House officials quickly tried to squelch.

“These were people who were helping her laugh, helping her think,” said Neel Lattimore, Clinton’s spokeswoman. “These were not seances.”

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