Pope Flies Into Swirling U.S., Global Politics

Pope Flies Into Swirling U.S., Global Politics
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By the end of this week, anyone close to U.S. politics will have lots (more) to talk about. Pope Francis, greeted with fanfare by President Obama at Joint Base Andrews Tuesday, will be watched around the world during his Wednesday appearance at the White House, followed by speeches to Congress Thursday and to the United Nations in New York on Friday.

Simply awaiting Francis’ first visit to the United States put the political world on alert. As presidential candidates debate just how many among the “huddled masses” deserve to breathe free in the land of immigrants, three of them, all day laborers in New York, have built a simple chair for the pope’s use during his Mass at Madison Square Garden. The immigrants, from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua, got the assignment for the Silla Sagrada (holy chair) because Cardinal Timothy Dolan wanted to make a point: Pope Francis cares about the poor and the powerless, and in New York, many immigrant day laborers are both.

A political adage known as Mile’s law asserts that where you stand depends on where you sit.  It will get a ferocious workout this week. The pope and Chinese President Xi Jinping will each take turns discussing the world with Obama at the White House and then convene at the U.N. later in the week. Republicans and Democrats, sparring this week over accepting Syrian refugees, abortion funding, and the causes of climate change, will take their seats to hear the pontiff’s messages, both at the Capitol and during a Washington Mass.  

Speaking in Italian and Spanish, the pope told reporters during his flight to the United States that he is not a political leftist, and espoused the tenets of the Catholic faith. He indicated he was unlikely to raise the politically prickly issue of lifting the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba when he addresses lawmakers. The president supports changing the law, while the Republican-controlled Congress opposes that step.

Obama’s spokesman denied the president would be leaning on the pope’s religious tenets to help bolster Democrats’ political or policy arguments. What the American president and the leader of the Catholic Church share are values, said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

“It doesn’t mean they agree on every issue -- they surely don't. Their focus in the context of this meeting will not be about politics, not about specific policies, but rather about the kinds of values that both men have dedicated their lives to changing,” he said Monday. “There’s plenty of opportunity for others to inject politics into this situation,” Earnest added. “But that's not what the president is interested in.”

It didn’t quite sound that way at Wednesday morning’s welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. In his remarks, the president seemed to dovetail with the pope on a number of contentious issues in American politics:

“You remind us that ‘the Lord’s most powerful message’ is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart – from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. …

“We are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people. …

“We thank you for … your call for nations to resist the sirens of war and resolve disputes through diplomacy.

“We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to a changing climate and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations.” 

Obama is eager to make common cause with the pope because of his global influence and his evident talent for communicating to people of all faiths and many socioeconomic strata. There is a hint of legacy in the manner in which the White House described Obama’s eagerness to welcome Francis to America following their first meeting in March 2014.

“Certainly the way that President Obama has prioritized those kinds of issues throughout his career, even before he arrived in the presidency, I think should give you an indication of how important the president thinks this meeting is,” his spokesman said on Tuesday. And what issues does Obama have in mind?  His support for a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants; combating global climate damage; criminal justice advances; expanding government safety nets for the poor and middle class; religious, racial, sexual and gender equality and tolerance; diplomacy with Iran to achieve denuclearization; and world peace.

Pope Francis, for all his denials about political advocacy, is not reluctant to wade into global affairs, including facilitating normalized relations between the United States and Cuba after more than half a century. In a speech to students in Cuba over the weekend, the pope explained that international engagement and increased understanding propel individuals, and nations, to greater achievements.

“Left to ourselves, we will go nowhere,” he said. “Nor by exclusion will we be able to build a future for anyone, even ourselves. A path of hope calls for a culture of encounter, dialogue, which can overcome conflict and sterile confrontation. To create that culture, it is vital to see different ways of thinking not in terms of risk, but of richness and growth. The world needs this culture of encounter. It needs young people who seek to know and love one another.”

During his speech, Francis said acceptance in a diverse world is insufficient without action. “Simple tolerance is not enough; we have to go well beyond that, passing from a suspicious and defensive attitude to one of acceptance, cooperation, concrete service and effective assistance,” he said.

In the presidential race, GOP candidates, particularly Donald Trump and Ben Carson, are at the moment knee-deep in a debate about whether they stir up ethnic and religious intolerance to win votes.  Trump, who advocates building a wall between the United States and Mexico, called illegal immigrants criminals and rapists, and he publicly encourages the falsehood that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. Carson over the weekend said he could not support a Muslim as U.S. president. The White House has rebuked both men, who have been leading in polls this summer, in order to draw a sharper contrast between the GOP field and Democrats vying to succeed Obama.

“They’re hoping for the political support” from voters who embrace “offensive views,” Earnest said, when asked about Trump and Carson this week. “That’s unfortunate."

On Tuesday, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has yet to gain more than a toehold in presidential horse race polls, said Republican presidential candidates employ “racist rhetoric.” Jeb Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish and is an advocate for immigration legislation, was worried about the survival of his campaign last week when he said the Democratic Party “demonizes everybody because their [Democrats’] ideas are dead.” He was speaking in South Carolina, one of the four early voting states in the presidential primaries.

Suspicions about Muslims and potential threats to U.S. national security are embedded in discussions accompanying the humanitarian refugee crisis in Europe, as millions of Syrian families stream out of their war-torn country hoping for help. Two Democratic presidential candidates, O’Malley and Hillary Clinton, challenged the Obama administration to offer sanctuary to as many as 65,000 Syrian refugees. U.S. officials, sensitive to the domestic political implications of securing the U.S. border with Mexico, are concerned that the administration’s recently announced policy to accept a much smaller number -- up to 10,000 Syrian refugees by 2017 – may contribute to a new spike in migrants trying to enter the United States from Central America.

In Europe and the United States the immigration debate is testing the limits of tolerance, generosity, sovereign identity, border security and governments’ abilities to manage crises and resolve their root causes. As the son and grandson of immigrants, the pope holds strong views about human suffering and the human spirit, and Americans of all religions and political dispositions will hear plenty about his views this week.

On the South Lawn, in the Oval Office, in the Capitol, and at the United Nations, Francis will perceive varied struggles for power and seemingly intractable divisions. His message has been simple: Where the powerless sit is where the powerful should stand.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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