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In Second Term, Obama Takes Softer Tone Toward Bushes

President Obama applauds as former first lady Barbara Bush and former President George W. Bush help President George H.W. Bush stand at the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Library on April 25 in Dallas. Former first lady Laura Bush looks on.
Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images
President Obama applauds as former first lady Barbara Bush and former President George W. Bush help President George H.W. Bush stand at the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Library on April 25 in Dallas. Former first lady Laura Bush looks on.

Former President George H.W. Bush will visit the White House on Monday, along with his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, to celebrate a milestone for Points of Light, a volunteer service organization that got its start during the first Bush administration.

During President Obama's first term, he didn't see much of the Bushes. He met with the former presidents — father, son or both — a total of just five times in four years.

So far, the second Obama term looks very different: Monday will mark Obama's third Bush meeting in three months.

At the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas in April, Obama talked about the exclusive coterie that has occupied the Oval Office — a group that understands the president's struggles in a way no one else can.

"Truth is, our club's more like a support group," he said.

Obama casually referred to his predecessor as "George," describing him as compassionate and generous. "And what I know is true about President Bush — and I hope my successor will say about me — is that we love this country and we do our best."

That tone is a contrast from four years ago.

When Obama took office, he rarely invoked the Bush name unless it was to assign blame for the Iraq war and the economic crisis. Today, he more often mentions the family in admiration.

A couple of weeks ago in Africa, Obama talked about how eager he was to thank his predecessor for starting an ambitious AIDS relief program.

"Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people's lives have been saved," he said.

For his part, President George W. Bush has largely stayed out of the limelight.

"I don't really want to undermine our president," he explained during an interview with ABC at his presidential library. "And, frankly, the only way for me to generate any news is to either criticize the president or criticize my party. I'm not interested in doing either."

But last week, Bush did make news, in a way that pleased the Obama White House. While officiating at a naturalization ceremony, Bush said that the laws governing the U.S. immigration system aren't working.

"I don't intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy," Bush said. "But I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate."

A Different Focus

George W. Bush no longer has much influence over his party, but former Obama White House spokesman Bill Burton says statements like that one can't hurt.

"Now, unfortunately, the result of where the debate is right now suggests that House Republicans are content to block almost all of this, regardless of who says what," Burton says. "But it should give hope to proponents of immigration reform."

This is an odd turn of events, says Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution. Suddenly, Obama and Bush are seeing things eye to eye.

"In the early days of the Obama administration, the focus was on things like Iraq and tax cuts, and so he found himself in direct opposition to George Bush's legacy," Galton says. "Well, now we're talking about things like immigration and aid to Africa."

And by today's standards, Galston says, the Bush family brand of Republicanism seems distinctly moderate — a contrast that Obama is happy to make.

"The entire family is looking better in retrospect," Galston says, "and I have to say that I think the elder Bush is an underestimated president."

'An Important Message'

There is also a larger significance to Obama's appearance with George H.W. Bush: As people in the Middle East struggle to establish democracies, events like this one remind the American people that despite Washington's dysfunction, the American system of government works better than many.

Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush's chief of staff, was recently at a summit in Tanzania where the former first lady and current first lady Michelle Obama met with African first ladies.

"The 10 African first ladies in attendance all said the same thing to me: For us to see the current and the former together, knowing how different their positions are, for us here in Africa, that is an important message," McBride says.

So Monday's White House event may be mostly a photo-op. But the significance of this particular photo sends an important reminder — around the world, and also here at home.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.