WASHINGTON — Meetings between popes and presidents have often been seen as photo opportunities, but people who have advised President Barack Obama on faith issues say his get-together next week with Pope Francis will involve other high-level officials and likely include talks about how to boost the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and ease extreme poverty.
It’s possible, the advisers say, that the U.S. embargo on Cuba and the condition of immigrants in the United States could also arise in the conversation between Obama and the church’s first Latin American pope.
The White House announced in January that Obama would meet Francis during a European trip. Both the President and Michelle Obama will be there, as well as National Security adviser Susan Rice and possibly Secretary of State John Kerry.
While there’s a clear appeal to being seen with the planet’s most popular pastor, experts say the trip isn’t without risks for the president. Francis is likely to raise concerns about war and poverty, areas where the Argentine Jesuit appears to favor more left-leaning solutions than does the current administration.
“Francis is capable of putting some direct leads in front of Obama (about focusing on the poor) and that will require something more than the obligatory response, ‘It’s nice to hear you,’” said one Democratic strategist who spoke on condition of not being named because the White House wants all information about the trip to run through its communications office. “My guess is the pope would like to see much more explicit work on behalf of the poor. Obama can point to what he’s done. It is certainly not a full alignment.”
Obama has made a point recently of aligning himself with Francis, with the White House saying the two have a “shared commitment to fighting … growing inequality.” The upcoming meeting will be Francis’ first chance to be more specific with Americans about how he feels their country impacts that inequality.
Generally, however, Vatican-watchers saw huge potential in the meeting between the president, who has focused often on poverty, and the pope, who publicly pined upon his election for “a church that is poor and for the poor.”
“Some said that under (Pope John Paul II) and (President Ronald Reagan) there was a meeting of the minds, and it’s potentially true again under Obama and Francis around the issues of social justice,” said Miguel Diaz, a Catholic theologian who served as Obama’s ambassador to the Vatican from 2009 until 2012. “This is the first African-American president and the first Latin-American pope. … I think these two men want to meet each other.”