By Nia-Malika Henderson and Peter Wallsten
Washington Post Staff Writers
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."
Crediting the school's principal and noting that its graduation rate had gone from 36 percent to 63 percent, Obama declared that Miami Central had "put those days behind you. . . . You are proving the naysayers wrong - you are proving that progress is possible."
The naysayers, however, came mostly from Obama's own party.
One of them was .Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, whose district includes Miami. As a state legislator she battled Bush's education plans. She rode with the president aboard Air Force One and was described by a pool reporter to have "bowed her head with great drama and shook it, as if in despair," over Obama teaming up with Bush.
Reporters asked her whether Congress should reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law - the accountability plan, enacted by George W. Bush, that Obama is trying to recraft. Wilson answered, "We have to be careful about what it is we're doing. You can't assume that all children are cookie cutters.''
Florida Democrats signaled their feelings later Friday about Obama's outreach to Jeb Bush - booing and hissing at a party fundraiser when the president mentioned that he had spent time with the former governor.
Dan Gelber, another former Democratic legislator who jousted with Bush over education, said he disagreed with the president's embrace of Bush's legacy. He said Obama may be correct to admire Florida's "system of weights and measures," but he added that inadequate funding, high dropout rates and low scores on college readiness suggest efficient testing does not mean better schools.
"It's like having a really fancy car with no gas," he said.
Still, with Obama's embrace, Bush's image on education policy is enhanced. And some Republicans who survey the 2012 field of potential White House challengers still see room for him to meet the president on a much different stage next year.
"I've offered to go to Iowa anytime he's ready," said John Thrasher, a state senator and close Bush ally. "He hasn't called yet."
Wallsten reported from Washington. Research director Alice Crites contributed to this report from Washington.