Obama praises Jeb Bush on education reform
Friday, March 4, 2011; 9:10 PM
MIAMI - In his first year as Florida governor, Jeb Bush was vilified by Democrats as a "radical" for an education agenda they argued would undermine public schools. So it was a striking moment when, 12 years later, a Democratic president came here Friday to hail the Republican as a "champion of education reform."
It was even more striking to consider that President Obama, introduced by Bush for a speech at a Miami high school, was teaming up with the younger brother of the man he replaced in the White House - a predecessor he has been quick to blame for many of America's troubles. And even more intriguing to think that, if only his last name were not Bush, Jeb would probably be the Republican Party's best hope of beating Obama next year.
Yet there they were, warmly shaking hands, exchanging laughs and declaring themselves brothers in arms when it comes to fixing the country's schools.
"I've gotten to know Jeb because his family exemplifies public service," Obama said, declaring he was "grateful to him for the work that he's doing."
Bush was more muted, withholding direct praise for Obama but adding: "Mr. President, as you have said, educational achievement is not a Republican or Democrat issue."
The exchange served as a reminder that the president and the former Florida governor are two of the more pragmatic figures in American politics, and both no doubt saw much to be gained politically from at least the appearance of harmony.
Obama, after all, is looking to soak up all the bipartisan bona fides he can in advance of a reelection campaign next year. Florida is a key state for him, and Bush remains popular here. Bush also is well-liked by Hispanic voters across the country - as a fluent speaker of Spanish and the husband of a Mexican American - and Obama seeks the support of that bloc.
Bush, 58, has repeatedly said he would not seek the White House next year despite his status as perhaps the one Republican equally admired by the business, tea-party and evangelical wings of the party. Those close to him say he would look seriously at a run in 2016 - and teaming up with the president shows Bush's relevance in a key national policy debate.
Moreover, Obama's presence serves as a vindication of sorts for Bush, who long chafed at Democrats' arguments that the "A-plus" plan he enacted in 1999 - to grade schools on an A-to-F scale based on testing results - was unfair to students in poor areas. Failing schools became targets under the plan for overhaul or even closure.
Bush argued that his plan was designed specifically to help those students - particularly minorities in struggling urban schools. He had even opened a charter school in inner-city Miami after narrowly losing his first bid for governor in 1994.
So having the country's first black president declare success at the mostly black Miami Central High School could only help bolster Bush's argument.
"A little more than a decade ago, when the state exams started, Miami Central scored a D in each of its first five years," Obama said. "Then it scored an F in each of the five years after that. Halls were literally littered with garbage. One of the buildings here was called the Fish Bowl because it was always flooded."