WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis in the Vatican in March, both men will speak a common economic language rooted in similar views about poverty and income inequality, giving prominence to an issue that the U.S. president wants to be a central theme of his second term.
In the complicated relationship between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church, the White House sees the popular new pontiff and his emphasis on the plight of the poor as a form of moral validation of the president’s economic agenda. When Obama delivered a major address on the economy last month, he cited th-e growth of inequality across the developed world and made sure to note that “the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length.”
The White House and the Vatican announced Tuesday that Obama will meet with the pope on March 27 during a four-day European trip that includes a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands and a U.S.-European Union summit in Brussels. The meeting is the first between the president and Pope Francis.
Paul Begala, a former top aide to President Bill Clinton, said Obama can only benefit from Francis’ emphasis on economic disparities.
“It becomes very difficult for conservatives to attack President Obama for being divisive, when the world’s greatest figure for unity is saying pretty much the same thing,” Begala said.
The economic theme will be a centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union address next week. But his specific policies — a higher minimum wage, universal pre-school and ending loopholes for the wealthy — face difficulty in Congress in an election year.
“American Catholics as a whole don’t tend to take specific policy guidance from the pope, whether it’s Pope Benedict or Pope Francis,” Green said. “But what the pope can do is to get them thinking about particular issues and thinking about them in distinctly Catholic ways. That kind of rethinking could very well be an advantage to President Obama.”