After the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, President Obama invited former president George W. Bush to join him at Ground Zero for a ceremony marking the event. Bush declined, saying through a spokesman that he wanted to stay out of the spotlight.
“This was starting to get into the run-up to the reelection,” said one former Bush official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions.
More than four years after their transition, Obama and Bush remain distant, meeting only at rare formal events, such as Thursday’s dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
There were areas where the two men could, perhaps, have come together, such as their agreement on immigration reform and on the need to combat AIDS globally, both of which Obama mentioned at the library dedication.
But it was not to be.
Obama has spent much of his presidency undoing major elements of Bush’s legacy, including working to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reversing tax cuts that benefited the wealthy. In both of his presidential campaigns, Obama routinely savaged Bush’s tenure, saying he pursued irresponsible economic and foreign policies.
Some Bush alumni also did their best to unseat Obama in last year’s election — a point the current president made to Bush’s former top political adviser, Karl Rove, during the unveiling of the 43rd president’s portrait at a White House event last May.
“You’re trying to get my picture hung prematurely,” Obama told Rove, according to a person at the event.
Rove responded, “Everything I can, Mr. President, everything I can.”
Bush, unlike former president Bill Clinton, has stayed out of politics since leaving the White House, an approach that Obama has appreciated, associates say.
“Whatever our political differences, President Bush loves this country and loves its people and shares that same concern and was concerned about all people in America, not just those who voted Republican,” Obama said during a Democratic fundraiser in Dallas on Wednesday night. “I think that’s true about him, and I think that’s true about most of us.”
Obama added on Thursday, “He is a good man.”
Bush seemed to have closer ties to Clinton during his tenure than Obama does to Bush, former Bush aides say. That was in part because of the warm relationship forged between Clinton and the 41st president, George H.W. Bush.
The current president and his predecessor rarely talk and seldom discuss politics or policy.
“It’s a cordial and professional relationship that has a lot of personal interest on the family side,” said Dan Bartlett, a former communications director for Bush. “A lot of that is, as President Bush has made very clear, he is perfectly fine with being off the grand stage.”
Bill Daley, a former Obama chief of staff, said the president rarely invoked George W. Bush’s name at the White House — though occasionally, he said, Obama’s team would privately bemoan how it was working to correct mistakes of the Bush era.
“It wasn’t like you would call him to try to get the Republicans on the debt ceiling vote,” Daley said, referring to the clash in 2011 that nearly sent the nation into default. “You would think that other presidents would maybe call on former presidents in handling this. Bush made it very clear that was not a role he would play.”
Obama has continued and even expanded some policies his predecessor embraced, such as the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists abroad. At the beginning of his term, Obama continued Bush’s financial rescue policies.
Former Obama officials say that although their campaign considered attacks on Bush’s record as useful politically, it didn’t factor much into their thinking once they took office.
“In a political context, that comparison was made quite often,” a former Obama official said, “but when you’re in the mode of governing, you’re not thinking about that.”
Bush aides say the critiques have been unfair. “I don’t think that rhetoric was appropriate for the president and not particularly helpful for the president,” said Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman.
Bartlett added that whether Bush “thinks it’s a smart political strategy is open to debate. He doesn’t take it personally. I would say there’s a certain shelf life for that criticism.”
Obama and Bush’s most famous conversation was a brief one when Obama called the former president to tell him that bin Laden had been killed.
Privately, the two have talked about family life, particularly how to bring up two daughters in the White House spotlight, Bartlett said. (Bush’s daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were in college when he entered the White House, but they were an object of media fascination, as are Obama’s children, Sasha and Malia.)
“They know more than anything about the pressures it puts on family life,” Bartlett said. “That has been a common level of interest.”
Last May, Obama hosted the Bush family and legions of aides for his portrait unveiling. Obama saluted Bush (and threw in a few jokes, too), saying he was grateful for his predecessor’s efforts to rescue the economy and for the “really good TV sports package” he left.
Bush said he was honored to be there, but his remarks were short on policy and heavy on jocularity. Bush told Obama that, with the portrait in place, “when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘What would George do?’ ”
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