Pope Francis has begun his long-anticipated first visit to the United States, being welcomed Tuesday afternoon by both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden and their families.
It was the first time Obama has gone to meet a visiting foreign dignitary at the point of arrival. The White House said that the president’s decision to greet the Pope personally at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington is a symbol of the high level of respect that Americans have for the Pontiff.
It’s also, no doubt, a token of Obama’s appreciation that Francis helped advance negotiations between Washington and Havana, leading to the reopening this summer of the American Embassy in Cuba and the Cuban Embassy in Washington. The Pope just wrapped up a three-day visit to Cuba.
Obama may also be counting on the Pope’s support for lifting the US economic embargo that has been in place against Cuba since the 1960s.
AP reported this week that the Obama administration may allow the U.N. to condemn the embargo without a fight. Such a step could increase pressure on Congress to end the 54-year-old restrictions.
As it does every year, the U.N. General Assembly will vote as early as next month to demand the embargo’s end. But this time, U.S. officials told the AP that the United States could abstain instead of voting against the resolution as it normally does. It is unheard of for a U.N. member state not to oppose resolutions critical of its own laws. And by not actively opposing the resolution, the administration would be effectively siding with the world body against the Republican-led House and Senate, which have refused to repeal the embargo despite calls from President Barack Obama to do so.
Pope Francis, who will address the United Nations in New York on Friday, said in an in-flight press conference on his way to Washington that he hopes an agreement regarding the embargo can be reached “that satisfies both sides.”
Today’s welcoming ceremony is the second time Obama and Francis met. They first met in March 2014 at the Vatican, and the Holy See and the White House offered differing accounts of what the leaders discussed. Obama stressed their common ground on fighting inequality and poverty while Vatican officials emphasized the importance to the Catholic Church of what they called “rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection.”
A crowd of about 1,000 well-wishers, including many, apparently, from Catholic schools, cheered as the Pontiff as he appeared at the bulkhead of the Alitalia Airbus 330. Chants like “Ho ho, hey hey, welcome to the U-S-A,” pierced the roar of the jet engines.
The president’s party escorted the Pope into a nearby building, and the two world leaders emerged shortly after to get into their respective transport vehicles. For Pope Francis, it was a modest-sized Fiat.
There were no speeches. The Pope’s first destination: the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States, where he will stay Tuesday and Wednesday nights before moving on to New York on Thursday.
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush travelled to Andrews Air Force Base to greet Pope Benedict XVI when he visited the United States in 2008.