Haitian earthquake relief: Obama taps Bush, Clinton for help

President Obama is roping in former Presidents George W. Bush and Clinton to help coordinate Haitian earthquake relief efforts. It's a gesture that makes Obama look bipartisan and gives Bush a chance to start shaping his post-presidential legacy.

Francois Mori/AP
Earthquake survivors wave to a helicopter flying over Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday.

Maybe President Obama is doing former President George W. Bush a favor.

Mr. Obama plans to announce that his immediate predecessor will team up with former President Clinton to help on humanitarian relief efforts and fund-raising for Haiti. Obama called Mr. Bush Wednesday night, and he accepted, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

For both ex-presidents, the role seems logical. Mr. Clinton was already the UN special envoy for Haiti when a massive earthquake struck Tuesday. And he served in a similar capacity along with the first President Bush five years ago after the Asian tsunami – at the behest of the 43rd president, the second Bush.

The junior Bush had signaled a year ago, as he was leaving office, that he would serve if asked. But there’s an awkward aspect to Bush’s new assignment.

“The thing about ‘43’ is that of course he was the acrimonious target of the Democrats who replaced him, and was perceived as discredited, and now he’s being offered a little bit of redemption by those former opponents,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “That makes this interesting.”

One episode that particularly damaged Bush’s image was the federal government’s response to hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though local and state governments also fell short, Bush never recovered politically.

For Democrat Obama, the inclusion of his Republican predecessor in relief efforts adds a bipartisan touch to the response. Obama came to office promising a new tone in Washington, but he and the Republicans quickly reverted to the city’s partisan ways.

For Bush, involvement with Haitian relief allows him to start shaping his post-presidential legacy. For the past year, Bush has laid low in his new hometown of Dallas, avoiding comment on his successor. In contrast, former Vice President Dick Cheney has had plenty to say – mostly negative – about Obama, especially his handling of terrorism.

Bush has given few speeches since leaving office, but in one, delivered in May at a high school graduation in New Mexico, he commented on how “liberating” it is to be out of office – and at times humbling. He recounted a recent walk out with his dog Barney.

“There I was, former president of the United States of America, with a plastic bag in my hand,” he said. “Life is returning back to normal.”

Now, with Haiti, Bush has much weightier issues to address.


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