In Second Term, Obama Takes Softer Tone Toward Bushes
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
At the White House today, President Obama is hosting former President George H. W. Bush, along with his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush. President Obama invited them to honor volunteers with Points of Light. That's a nonprofit service organization that was formed during the first Bush administration.
President Obama has been spending more time with the Bush family lately. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: 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. Today is their third meeting in three months.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Truth is, our club's more like a support group.
SHAPIRO: At the George W. Bush Presidential Library opening in Texas, President 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. Obama casually referred to his predecessor as George, describing him as compassionate and generous.
OBAMA: 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.
SHAPIRO: 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 weeks ago in Africa, Obama talked about how eager he was to thank his predecessor for starting an ambitious AIDS relief program.
OBAMA: Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people's lives have been saved.
SHAPIRO: For his part, President George W. Bush has largely stayed out of the limelight. He explained that decision in an interview with ABC at his presidential library.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I don't really want to undermine our president. And frankly, the only way for me to generate any news is for me to either criticize the president or criticize my party. I'm not interested in doing either.
SHAPIRO: But last week Bush did make news, in a way that pleases the Obama White House. He officiated a naturalization ceremony and said the laws governing our immigration system aren't working.
BUSH: I don't intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy. But I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate.
SHAPIRO: 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.
BILL BURTON: Now, unfortunately where the debate is right now suggests that House Republicans are content to block almost all of this regardless of who says what. But it should give hope to proponents of immigration reform.
SHAPIRO: This is an odd turn of events, says Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution. Suddenly Obama and Bush are seeing things eye to eye.
BILL GALSTON: 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. Well, now we're talking about things like immigration and aid to Africa.
SHAPIRO: And by today's standards, Galston says, the Bush family brand of Republicanism seems distinctly moderate, a contrast that Obama is happy to make.
GALSTON: The entire family is looking better in retrospect, and I have to say that I think the elder Bush is an underestimated president.
SHAPIRO: There's also a larger significance to Obama's appearance today 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 was chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. She was recently at a summit in Tanzania where Michelle Obama and Laura Bush met with African first ladies.
ANITA MCBRIDE: 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.
SHAPIRO: So today'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. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.