President Obama is not known for his graciousness. But the occasion—the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum—called for kind words about his predecessor in the White House. So he said that if immigration reform passes Congress this year, “it will be in large part thanks to all the hard work of the president, George W. Bush.” Bush had “restarted” the drive to overhaul our immigration system seven years ago, Obama said.
Bush, always gracious, thanked Obama and wife Michelle for coming to the ceremony. “Unlike the other presidents here”—Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton—“he’s actually got a job.”
It was a pleasant interlude, nothing more, for the presidencies of Bush and Obama are quite different, as are the two men. True, Obama has adopted Bush’s policies on wiretaps, military detention of terrorists without trial, drone strikes, immigration, middle-class tax cuts, and a global war on AIDS. But the fact that Obama seldom acknowledges his reliance on Bush magnified his tribute to his predecessor’s role on immigration reform as a rare expression of gratitude by Obama.
A friend of mine has a test for leadership: Winners take responsibility, losers make excuses. Obama isn’t a loser, but he is a fountain of excuses. And this touches on a striking contrast between him and Bush. Obama blames Bush for much that’s gone wrong during Obama’s White House years. Despite press baiting, Bush has refused to criticize Obama on any matter.
One can imagine the self-discipline required to stay silent when Obama claims to have single-handedly prevented another Great Depression. In truth, the bank bailout during the final weeks of the Bush presidency foreclosed the possibility of a depression. All Obama had to deal with was a deep recession, which bottomed out five months after he took office and before his policies could have much effect.
Bush has taken responsibility for everything on his watch, including the poor response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush’s mistake was to rely on the Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor to take charge after Katrina struck. They failed to do so. Obama was luckier when Sandy hit the Northeast just before Election Day. Strong governors and mayors took charge.
Bush and Obama are both polarizing figures, but for different reasons. Bush’s policies, particularly on Iraq and terrorism, divided Republicans and Democrats sharply. But Obama goes a step further, constantly slamming Republicans and impugning their motives. Obama personally polarizes. Bush didn’t attack Democrats from the White House.
On immigration, Obama has been more partisan than Bush. As a senator in 2007, he voted for several amendments sought by Democratic interest groups—amendments that would shatter the bipartisan coalition behind immigration reform. Bush backed the coalition’s terms without exception. The measure died in the Senate before a vote.
Oddly enough, Bush and Obama have each ordered military surges. With little backing even inside his own administration, Bush ordered a last-ditch troop buildup in Iraq in 2007 and a new war strategy. He held on until they worked. Obama ordered a smaller surge in Afghanistan in 2009, also with little public enthusiasm. He later began withdrawing troops, having achieved minimal success.
Obama, we learned from a New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, likes to “lead from behind” in foreign affairs. He did just that in Libya when dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted. The trouble with leading from behind is that it leaves the United States with less clout, as in Libya. Bush preferred to lead from the front. This gave him considerable influence with foreign leaders. It also brought him enormous blame when things went wrong, as in Iraq prior to the surge.
There’s a common thread in foreign policy: They both misjudged Russian president Vladimir Putin as a potential friend. Obama, as America’s first African-American president, is wildly popular around the world. But not with leaders. Bush was the opposite, scorned by the masses but embraced by the leaders. British prime minister Tony Blair and Spain’s prime minister José María Aznar were close allies. Obama has no allies as close.
Domestic policy? Bush reached bipartisan deals on education (No Child Left Behind) and banks (TARP). Obama has done nothing comparable. Both presidents endorsed reform of entitlements to keep the deficit from soaring. Bush, once reelected, spent most of 2005 drumming up support for Social Security reform. He generated practically none. Obama, so far, has merely talked about reforming entitlements.
He and Bush now find themselves similar in popularity. Bush’s favorability in a Fox News poll last week was 49 percent, Obama’s 52 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll has Bush and Obama tied at 47 percent.
The Bush numbers may not seem worth bragging about—until you take into account where they were when he left office. In October 2008, his favorability was 25 percent (Fox), 23 percent (Post-ABC).
That Bush has stayed out of politics since he left office is likely to have improved his popularity. “That rise is exactly what one would expect, based on the history of other ex-presidents’ approval ratings,” David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times. With his impressive museum and a spate of sympathetic reappraisals of his presidency, Bush’s rating may keep rising.
Bush has a theory about presidential museums: They won’t succeed if they’re entirely about the president. “The first challenge is not only to be relevant, but to be long lasting,” he told me in a recent interview. “If you make it about an individual, it won’t be long lasting. The individual will fade, will die, go away. History will slowly focus on the next group of presidents.”
To avoid this, the Bush Center has its own think tank, the George W. Bush Institute. Bush calls it a “do tank.” Its aim is not to produce academic studies or policy reports but to achieve tangible results in six areas: economic growth, spreading democracy, women’s rights, veterans, global health, and education reform.
Bush says he’s “hands-on” in developing the institute’s programs. “We hire good people, set the strategic agenda, and pay attention to what they’re doing,” he says. Then it’s appropriate for him to “butt out so they can get their work done.”
Bush says he doesn’t fret over how he’ll fare in history. But his standing is likely to improve with time. “The worse a president’s reputation when he leaves office, the better chance there is for revision,” University of Texas historian H. W. Brands told the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “Every so often there’s a new generation of historians and they have to come along and challenge the conventional wisdom.” When that occurs, Bush is bound to soar.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.