VATICAN CITY -- President Barack Obama will arrive at the Vatican on Thursday eager to meet the new pope he’s quoted in a speech and lauded on television – and perhaps to bask in a little of Pope Francis’ stratospheric popularity.
Obama has gushed over the new leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, who’s put the poor at the center of his papacy. Looking to hitch onto that part of the pope’s message, the White House talked in advance about the two men’s “shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality.”
There’s also the photo opportunity, appearing with the pontiff whom polls suggest has struck a chord around the world in a way that reaches beyond his own religion.
“Everybody on the planet would love to have their picture taken with the pope right now,” said Stephen F. Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. “And Obama’s not much different.”
Schneck, who served as a national co-chair of Catholics for Obama during the president’s campaign, said Francis’ emphasis on the poor reflected a “convergence and overlap” for Obama, who’s made narrowing the widening gap between rich and poor a central focus of his second term.
Francis, in an official Vatican “Evangelii Gaudium,” declared “inequality is the root of social ills,” and Obama in December used a quote from Francis as he assailed income equality in the U.S.
“How can it be,” Obama said, quoting Francis, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
If they agree on the need to help the poor, they differ on other issues, however, as debate raged in the U.S. over the mandate in the new health care law that employer-provided health insurance provide free contraception.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over that provision this week, a mandate opposed by Catholic bishops and many Americans.
Minnesotans Ellen Poquette and her husband, Patrick, who stood in a cold drizzle Wednesday morning in St. Peter’s Square to hear Pope Francis deliver his Wednesday sermon, hope that Obama is listening.
“A viewpoint (Obama) needs to hear is how central it is to our Catholic faith that we honor conception from life to death,” she said. “I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I’m hoping he hears it.”
At home, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggested Obama should explain to Francis “why he is telling businesses in America they can’t remain true to their faith and stay in business. “
Francis is unlikely to diverge from the bishops, said Stephen P. White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
“If the president hopes to score political points or drive a wedge between the pope, who’s committed to the poor, and the bishops . . . that message is going to be contradicted by the reality of the situation,” White said. “He’s not going to scold but he’s going to be firm.”
Other issues that might come up include immigration, gay rights and the environment.
Regardless of the issue, Obama will find in Francis a charismatic leader whose popularity his first year on the world stage rivaled, if not surpassed, Obama’s own.
A recent poll pegs Francis’ popularity at 85 percent among U.S. Catholics, and 63 percent among all Americans. The new survey by Saint Leo University’s polling institute put his negatives at 5 percent among Catholics and 8 percent of all Americans.
Obama’s approval ratings are “more modest,” notes the Catholic university in Florida: He drew 47 percent, with 49 percent disapproving of his job performance. The data is derived from a national poll of 1,009 people conducted March 16 to 18.
Obama’s meeting with Francis will be the 28th between a sitting U.S. president and a pope, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
George W. Bush had held the distinction of being the only sitting U.S. president to meet two popes, but he’ll share that with Obama, who met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Bush, however, holds the record for meeting with the pope more times than any other sitting president: six.
Obama will also play tourist at the Colosseum while he’s in Rome, forcing street vendors along the route from the Vatican to the amphitheater to close up shop for the day.
That’s fine with Akal Lama, who’s been on the same spot for 15 years, selling souvenir key chains, snow globes, cigarette lighters, decorative plates and for the past year, Pope Francis bobble heads.
“We have respect for the big guys,” he said. “This is important.”