Since leaving office in 2009 with a rock-bottom job approval rating, George W. Bush has maintained what even his critics considered an admirable silence on matters relating to American domestic politics.
“He’s aware that whenever a former president speaks out against the current one, the criticism gets amplified beyond its merits,” wrote former Obama White House official and Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein. “Bush doesn’t want to exploit his past role in that way.”
“George W. Bush is a traditionalist,” CNN contributor and former Clinton White House advisor David Gergen opined. “I think he holds to an old-fashioned standard that the presidency is one of the world’s greatest fraternities and its members don’t criticize each other.”
But Bush wasn’t merely tight-lipped with his opinion on Barack Obama’s performance in office. The former president kept quiet on just about any issue in which his comments could be considered partisan and, thus, polarizing. Seldom did the 43rd President believe that his opinions could improve the silence, and so he rarely offered them. It was a level of deference to his successor that few believe the current president will display when he leaves office.
And while Bush is still not speaking out on issues of political relevance in interviews with reporters, he is apparently growing bolder when he makes public addresses. According to a report via New York Times journalists Jason Horowitz and Maggie Haberman, Bush opened up during a Q&A in Las Vegas on Saturday where he offered his unvarnished thoughts about his brother’s candidacy, the situation in Iraq, and the state of the 2016 presidential race.
“At one point, according to more than a half-dozen guests leaving the ballroom and one attendee who transcribed remarks during the event, Mr. Bush was asked a winking question about the qualities he sought in a president,” The Times reported. “But instead of aggressively boosting his brother, who he described as capable, Mr. Bush acknowledged being a liability to his brother’s candidacy, noting that it was easy for his rivals to say in debates that we don’t need another Bush.”
“That’s why you won’t see me,” Bush reportedly conceded, noting that his visibility would hinder his brother’s political ambitions.
Bush also weighed in the “formidable” but vulnerable likely Democratic nominee, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
“It’s going to be hard for her to defend or support” the president’s legacy, Mr. Weinstein recalled Mr. Bush saying.
Given the current state of the world, the former president said, it’s tough either way.
He spoke dismissively of candidates who surrounded themselves with “sycophants” and bemoaned a culture built around a single person, or even a party. The goal, he stressed, should be about serving the national interest.
Surely, George W. Bush’s veiled attacks on both Obama and Clinton, not to mention the former secretary’s coterie of admirers, will soon be coming to a fundraising email blast near you. Bush’s candid assessment of the presidential race is, however, indicative of the fact that the former White House occupant is warming to the prospect of reentering the political fray.
Americans do love their former presidents, and George W. Bush is no exception. More than six years after leaving office, Bush’s favorability rating has rebounded, and he is viewed positively by a near majority. According to the results of a Gallup survey from last December, 49 percent of respondents described having a favorable view of the former president – a figure that included 24 percent of self-identified Democrats — compared to 46 percent who did not. Bush’s silence on political matters and his embrace of apolitical causes like veterans issues as an ex-president contributed to his rehabilitation, and that progress might be arrested by Bush’s decision to engage again in politics. But there is no question that Bush’s image has recovered over the last several years. What’s more, the former president’s decision to speak freely on political issues suggests that Bush knows it.