By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A12
President Obama hosted former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the Oval Office on Saturday to discuss Haiti relief efforts, a show of political solidarity that has become an expected ritual in the days after a massive natural disaster.
For the moment, the usual political animosities have crumbled along with the devastating images of buildings turned to rubble 100 miles south of Miami. Speaking in the Rose Garden, the three presidents pledged to work together toward the long-term rebuilding of Haiti.
"In times of great challenge in our country and the world, Americans have always come together," Obama said, his predecessors from both parties standing at his side. "Here at home, presidents Bush and Clinton will help Americans to do their part."
He said the joining together of two political adversaries should send an "unmistakable signal" to the Haitian people of America's resolve.
But the bipartisan tableau also served, in its own way, to acknowledge the reality that political considerations often intrude on the long-term efforts to direct U.S. assistance toward complicated and costly rebuilding efforts abroad.
With unemployment in the United States at 10 percent, and concerns about deficits and spending already roiling the domestic political landscape, Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill may find it challenging to live up to his promise of a comprehensive, years-long commitment to recovery on the island nation.
New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D), who leads the House subcommittee that handles foreign aid requests, called it a "delicate balance" that will require a mix of government action, private donations and international assistance beyond just the United States.
"When the president requests a dollar amount, I think he has to be judicious and think about it in terms of what we're doing to create jobs and build the infrastructure here at home," Lowey said. "It is in our national security interests. But it is a balance when economic conditions are so bad here."
In the short term, Obama appears to have concluded that there is no political downside to being completely engaged in the rescue effort.
Within 48 hours of the earthquake, Obama promised $100 million for the immediate rescue and recovery efforts in Haiti. That is larger than the $15 million that Bush's administration initially pledged after the Indonesian tsunami that killed 260,000 people, though his administration raised that amount to $350 million within a week.
According to a detailed account of Obama's post-earthquake activities put out by the White House, the president has received nine briefings, including one in the Situation Room, has called eight world leaders and made public remarks three times.
His office also released an essay under his name that was published in Newsweek magazine, promising that "in the months and years to come, as the tremors fade and Haiti no longer tops the headlines or leads the evening news, our mission will be to help the people of Haiti to continue on their path to a brighter future."
But the history of America's long-term commitments following natural disasters suggests that it won't be that simple.
The bipartisan pledges of unity following the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina faded as funding requests became the subjects of partisan feuds in state capitols and among members of Congress.
Debates about how to respond to reconstruction efforts abroad -- including massive efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to rebuild schools, hospitals and other infrastructure -- have sparked ideological debates about America's proper role in the world.
And evidence of corruption and incompetence in places like Kenya and elsewhere have raised questions for American lawmakers about the ability of foreign countries to make the best use of U.S. investments.
In Haiti, which even before the earthquake was suffering from the impact of floods and poverty, U.S. assistance has been hampered by decades of argument about the who should be leading the country. Clinton's administration sought to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 1990s; Bush was happy to see him go in the next decade.
For Obama, making a request of that magnitude -- $30 billion over 10 years -- could be politically tricky, despite the promises of unity from Republicans. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh offered an example of the vitriolic politics that often accompany such debates on his show this week.
Limbaugh accused Obama of using the Haiti crisis to "burnish his credentials with minorities in this country and around the world, and to accuse Republicans of having no compassion." Earlier in the week, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs called Limbaugh's comments "stupid."
Immigration, too, could prove to be a complication as the tragedy moves from rescue to reconstruction. Conservatives and liberals said this week they support extending temporary protection for Haitians living in the United States, ending the threat of deportations back to a broken country. But some opponents of illegal immigration warned that the protection should end once the immediate crisis is over, and the possibility of a new exodus of Haitians into the United States could complicate Democratic efforts to push comprehensive immigration reform this year.
At the White House on Saturday, the three presidents who have occupied the Oval Office since 1993 struck an optimistic tone, expressing hope that such divisions can be bridged.