The Pope, The President: Obama, Fading Rock Star, Meets With Icon On The Rise

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The meeting Thursday between President Barack Obama and Pope Francis will bring together two masters of charisma – two men who have blazed trails.

The man who became the first African-American to be president of the United States will sit down with the Argentinian man who became the first Catholic pope from the Americas, and the first Jesuit.

Indeed, Obama and Francis, who will meet at the Vatican, have much in common.

Their words and actions reverberate around the world. Francis was the 2013 Time Magazine Person of the Year. Obama was the 2012 and 2008 Person of the Year. Francis was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama was awarded it.

They both have made the poor and less fortunate a priority, with Pope Francis eschewing many of the gilded trappings of the papacy and doing such things as personally calling those whose struggles he learns about, and sending out a Vatican envoy to meet with the destitute.

Obama has denounced income inequality, and has pushed for a higher minimum wage.

The president has made a point of praising the pope’s emphasis on the poor, and according to a White House spokesman who discussed the impending meeting with the press, the president “looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality.”

The pope is enjoying high popularity, while the president's has plunged.

Francis has an 85 percent approval rating among American Catholics and a 63 percent approval rating among all Americans, according to the survey by the Saint Leo (Fla.) University Polling Institute. Obama, in his second term as president, has seen his overall approval rating dip to 47 percent as he battles criticism over his healthcare plan and immigration.

Pope Francis is known for his concern for migrants, and Obama will be meeting with him as pressure is building on him to curb the record rate of deportations that have taken place during his tenure.

In fact, on Wednesday, members of a California group of advocates who want comprehensive immigration reform were in Rome and personally asked the pope to raise the issue of immigration reform with Obama.

But one issue that is generating a great deal of attention, and that would be extremely sensitive, observers say, is the controversial mandate in the Affordable Care Act that calls for contraception coverage by employers, which many Catholic parishioners and bishops, and conservatives of other faiths, have denounced.

“Hopefully tomorrow's meeting won't just be a photo-op used to promote President Obama's political agenda,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, to Fox News Latino, “but rather an opportunity to focus on the pope's challenge to our ‘throwaway culture’ to help the all the vulnerable – be they the poor, the unborn child in the womb, or the elderly.”

Ferguson said she is fairly certain the pope will raise the subject of the contraception mandate in Obama’s healthcare plan. Opponents say it forces religious institutions to facilitate contraception, which is contrary to their faith, and therefore violates their right to religious freedom.

“The issue of religious freedom is likely to be discussed since just yesterday the president's administration was arguing at the Supreme Court that the government can force people to violate their faith under threat of massive fines,” she said, “a sharp narrowing of our country's conception of the free exercise of religion. The president is being sued in the largest religious liberty lawsuit of its kind because of his hostile actions towards Catholics and other people of faith. So, yes, I'd expect that to come up.”

The Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia, said more than anything, the meeting between Obama and Francis will be significant.

“It’s symbolic, but it’s an important symbol,” said Fogarty, who specializes in American Catholic history and Vatican-American relations. “The pope is a leader different than any other leader. It’s reached a state [for the role of a pope] that no president can go near Italy without meeting the pope.”

As for what impact the meeting could have, particularly as far as Obama, whose popularity has taken a plunge in polls, Fogarty guessed the president would deftly handle any awkward moments or topics that might arise.

“There’s tension between Obama and the [Catholic] bishops,” Fogarty said, “and many Catholics believe he hates Catholics.”

“One reason the president is having this meeting is to try to bridge those gaps,” Fogarty said, “to bring the dialogue to another level, between the government and church leaders in this country.”

Both men are gregarious and known for their personal charm, Fogarty noted, but they’ll be addressing each other through translators, which will color the chemistry that may emerge between them.

Should the pope express his disapproval of the contraceptive coverage mandate and abortion rights, Fogarty said, the president likely will respond in a smooth way.

“He’s got very shrewd advisers,” Fogarty said, who no doubt have prepared the president for these potentially delicate topics and moments in the meeting.

Basically, he added, the two share a strong fundamental view of society’s responsibility to the less fortunate.

“They agree on immigration, the pope would agree on sanctions against Russia, and that may come up, and the Church supports social programs, basically big government,” he said.

While the pope, however, has taken what many would call a liberal view of many issues, he remains at the core conservative about such things as abortion and gay marriage.

“I think in his simplistic analysis of the Church, President Obama has probably bought the radical left's caricature of the pope as some sort of revolutionary leader who is going to change Church doctrine of matters of morality,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, “and may think the pope can give him cover to some of his leftist policies.

"He will be very disappointed, however. Pope Francis is a man of the people no doubt. A great pastor. But, like his predecessors, when it comes to Church doctrine he is totally orthodox."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.