WASHINGTON — At some point late Thursday morning, Mitt Romney will be driven to the steps of the White House. He will get out of the car, be escorted to a room adjacent to the Oval Office, and sit down for lunch.
But rather than arriving as an occupant, the one-time presidential hopeful will be a guest in someone else's house.
In a meeting weeks in the making, Romney will join President Obama for private lunch at the White House just 23 days after he lost the election. It will be the first time they have met since the election, and it comes as the former Massachusetts governor has started to contemplate life outside politics.
It marks both an early olive branch extended by Obama to a vanquished political rival, and a potentially pivotal — and awkward — moment for Romney. Since the election, he has been criticized for saying that Obama won because of the "gifts" he bestowed upon Hispanics, African Americans, and young voters.
Before his lunch at the White House, Romney — who has kept a low profile since election night — is planning to meet with his former running mate, Representative Paul Ryan. It will be the first time they've seen each other face-to-face since that night.
Those close to Romney say he hasn't decided what he wants to do next. He is planning to move into an office within Solamere Capital, an investment firm on Boston's Newbury Street that was cofounded by Romney's oldest son, Tagg, and his campaign's national finance chairman, Spencer Zwick.
Former Romney advisers say he is subleasing office space, but he has no plans to have a role in the firm. Still, the move indicates that Romney is beginning to lay the groundwork for a Boston-based life after the presidential campaign.
"He's a very competitive guy and he always analyzes; he'll analyze this," said one longtime Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. "But I don't think he feels blue or angry or anything like that."
Meanwhile, the second-guessing by Romney and his campaign staff continues. Senior strategist Stuart Stevens wrote an op-ed defending Romney that was published Wednesday in the Washington Post.
Obama "was a charismatic African-American president with a billion dollars, no primary, and a media that often felt morally conflicted about being critical," Stevens wrote. "How easy is that to replicate?"
The meeting at the White House was first brought up on election night, when Obama said he wanted to get together with his Republican rival. In a press conference a week later, he said that there are certain aspects of Romney's record and his ideas that could be "very helpful."
"To give you one example, I do think he did a terrific job running the Olympics," Obama said. "And you know, that skill set of trying to figure out how do we make something work better applies to the federal government."
Obama said that he wanted to hear some of Romney's ideas about making the government more customer-friendly and how to eliminate additional waste. He said that he didn't have "some specific assignment" for Romney but wanted to "see if there are some ways that we can potentially work together."
"He presented some ideas during the course of the campaign that I actually agree with," Obama said. "And so it'd be interesting to talk to him about something like that. There may be ideas that he has with respect to jobs and growth that can help middle-class families that I want to hear."
Just before Thanksgiving, the White House called Matt Rhoades, who was Romney's campaign manager, to see if Romney would be interested in having lunch at the White House. Rhoades replied that he would.
"It was a gracious invitation from the president, which Mitt Romney was glad to accept," Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime Romney aide, said Wednesday.
When asked whether Romney was being considered for any Cabinet position, White House press secretary Jay Carney said flatly, "No." He said the meeting would be closed to the press.
The tradition of rivals meeting postelection stretches back at least to 1960, when John F. Kennedy met with Richard Nixon at Nixon's home in Key Biscayne, Fla.
President Bill Clinton gave the Medal of Freedom to Bob Dole two months after the 1996 election, and President George W. Bush invited Al Gore to the White House after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Michael Dukakis met with George H.W. Bush about a month after the 1988 election. In the days after the 2008 election, Obama met with John McCain in Chicago. They pledged to work together, something that has not transpired. Most of these meetings are marked by tense rooms, grimaced faces, and an awkward moment between two ultracompetitive men.
The meeting between Romney and Obama will be the first since Oct. 22, when they faced each other in the campaign's final debate.
Romney has mostly faded from public view. He took in the movie "Twilight" with his wife, Ann, and dined on pizza afterward, an outing that was covered by the gossip website TMZ. He went to Disneyland and was photographed on roller coasters with some of his sons and grandchildren.
He was also photographed by a bystander while he was pumping gas in California, shown looking worn, with unkempt hair.
"Mitt Romney at my local gas station," wrote a user named mkb95, who posted the photo on the social media site Reddit. "He looks tired and washed up."
Romney posted a warmer photo of himself on his Facebook page, casually dressed in khakis and a T-shirt, with his arms draped around Ann in a kitchen as he smiles broadly. He included wishes for a happy Thanksgiving, adding, "Much to be thankful for this year."
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.