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Popular Pope meets increasingly unpopular US President

US bishops were among the most outspoken opponents of Obamacare, objecting to its mandatory coverage of contraception.

imageUS President Barack Obama meeting with Pope Francis this morning. Pic: (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA is holding a historic first meeting with Pope Francis, the pontiff that the president views as a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality and the poor.

Obama arrived at the Vatican this morning amid the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way to greet the pope after a long, slow procession. The pontiff and the president shook hands before sitting down with their translators at a wooden table for their meeting.

“Wonderful to be here,” Obama said, calling it “a great honor.”

As they meet, the six-year president, with his sinking poll numbers, would not be blamed for seeking some reflected glory from a pope who, one year into his pontificate, is viewed as an agent of change in the Roman Catholic Church.

imagePresident Obama on the opposite side of the table then he’s used to. (Pic: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience marks a change of pace for the president, who has devoted the past three days of a weeklong, four-country trip to securing European unity against Russia’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine.

The pope whom Obama will sit with this time is a different pontiff than the last one to host him. Obama visited Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, a cordial meeting that nevertheless drew attention to the differences between the church and Obama on abortion.

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President Barack Obama walks past two Vatican Swiss guards as he arrives at the Vatican. Pic:

To be sure, the relationship between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church is a fraught one. And Vatican officials say Obama will not leave without having heard Francis’ views on Obama’s health care law and its mandates for contraception coverage.

But in Francis, the White House sees the popular pope and his emphasis on economic disparity as a form of moral validation of the president’s economic agenda.

“Given his great moral authority, when the pope speaks it carries enormous weight,” Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published ahead of his papal visit. “He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion.”

Popes and presidents

Several presidents have found allies if not comfort in the pope.

President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II famously shared an antipathy for the former Soviet Union, Reagan the Cold War warrior and the pope a Polish priest who fought communism in his country and later in Europe.

“Sometimes in these meetings there are compatible personalities,” said Paul Begala, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and a Catholic himself. He recalled being with Clinton when the president met John Paul II in Denver.

imagePope John Paul II, right, meets with President Ronald Reagan in Miami in 1987. (Pic: AP Photo/Arturo Mari)

“They were only supposed to meet alone for five minutes,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “Those two gregarious, charismatic men sat in that room for an hour without another soul in there.”

The Obama-Francis chemistry remains to be seen, but thematically both seem to be on some of the same pages.

Still, there are difficult areas of discord between US bishops and the Obama administration over abortion and the administration’s health care overhaul. US bishops were among the most outspoken opponents of Obamacare, objecting to its mandatory coverage of contraception.

Read: Obama to meet Pope Francis in first Vatican visit since 2009 >

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Associated Press

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