CONCORD, N.H. — Jeb Bush on Thursday put a bit more space between himself and his brother, part of a slow-motion and seemingly reluctant distancing effort as he moves toward a White House bid.
After being asked by a questioner at a sports bar here whether there is any “space” between the Bush brothers on issues, Jeb Bush pointed to the scale of government spending during the George W. Bush presidency.
“I think that in Washington, during my brother’s time, Republicans spent too much money,” Jeb Bush said. “I think he could have used the veto power — he didn’t have line-item veto power, but he could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C.”
Total federal spending grew from $1.86 trillion in 2001 to nearly $3 trillion in 2008, an annual growth rate of 7 percent. Spending in President Obama’s first six years has had an annual growth rate of about 4 percent.
Bush’s fiscal criticism is the most direct critique to date of his brother’s presidency. He has said that “mistakes were made” during the Iraq war, but he otherwise avoids directly criticizing his brother or his father, George H.W. Bush, another former president.
Bush has spoken frequently about his family over the course of his political travels. But his comments about them grew more defensive in recent days, following his struggle last week to explain whether he would have authorized the Iraq war.
He told business leaders in Portsmouth on Wednesday that he loves his father and brother and that “people just are going to have to get over that.” When asked about potential differences at a house party Wednesday night, he joked that he is smarter and better looking before moving on.
“I don’t feel compelled to go out of my way to criticize Republican presidents. Just call me a team player here,” he told voters at the sports bar Thursday morning. “It just so happens the last two Republican presidents happened to be my dad and my brother.”
Later, Bush was asked during a radio interview whether he is ever bothered by attacks on his family. He said he will be “successful” if he can “show what kind of person I am.”
“If it’s all about the past, if it’s all about whether the Bushes are going to break the Adams family [record] in terms of the number of people who are president, that’s a loser,” he told WKXL radio. “I totally get that — and I think people have a right to question me, and I’ll have every opportunity to convince them of who I am.”
Aides and friends say overcoming Bush’s family lineage remains a big, but surmountable, hurdle.
“I don’t think anyone goes out of their way to say something unpleasant or critical of their family,” said John “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime Bush friend and Tallahassee-based lobbyist, in an interview this week. “But I don’t think he’s incapable of doing it.”
A January Washington Post-ABC News poll asked whether Bush’s family made voters more or less likely to support him. Overall, 55 percent of respondents said his family made no difference; 67 percent of Republicans said it didn’t matter. After starting the year leading polls in New Hampshire, he now narrowly leads or is tied with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
Jorge Arrizurieta, another Bush friend from Miami, said he remains baffled by the public focus on Bush’s family.
“I just hope the American people give Jeb some degree of acceptance to the fact that being the brother of and son of former presidents is what it is,” he said. “He’s going to disagree and agree at times. We can succeed if people realize that this guy is incredibly genuine and a very serious guy and that he’s going to disagree with his base more than people think he should.”
Familial ties are not his only challenge. While crisscrossing New Hampshire over two days, Bush repeatedly encountered resistance to his support for education standards known as Common Core. Asked by a woman in Portsmouth about students suffering from intense test-taking schedules mandated by the standards, Bush urged parents to get beyond “the initial trauma of actually taking a test.”
“If people want to opt out, fine,” he said. “The world is full of tests, the world is full of accountability. You want to get a job? You gotta take a test. You want to be a lawyer? You gotta take a test. Doctor? Take a test. Real estate broker? Take a test.”
Bush told the same Portsmouth crowd that the GOP will take back the White House if the party’s nominee plans to “campaign outside your comfort zone, campaign outside of the choir.”
“I’m 800 years old in political years. I’ve been doing this for a long while,” he said. “I’m as old as Moses in political years, and I know you have to fight back, but you also have to have joy in your heart and do this is a hopeful, optimistic way.”