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Bush, Obama and a view of bipartisan problem-solving

Then President-elect Barack Obama watches as then-President George W. Bush speaks.
In this Jan. 7, 2009, file photo, then President-elect Barack Obama watches as then-President George W. Bush speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, during a meeting with Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush, not shown.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Were we to make a political wish for the new year, it might be for more cooperation at the national level in moments of true crisis. Civil conversations across the political aisle are a starting point for healing a polarized society; action — bipartisan action — however, deserves greater attention.

The Great Recession of 2008 comes to mind as one of the more recent instances of political cooperation. George W. Bush and Barack Obama demonstrated unusual “civic friendship,” as Aristotle would have termed it, in responding to the crisis.

A shared concern for the welfare of the American people, as well as mutual respect between the two men, whatever their differing philosophies, made for a singular moment in American history.

While few saw the housing bubble coming before the spring of 2008, President Bush found himself in uncharted political territory as mortgage defaults shredded the financial sector in an era of easy money. It might be said that the sitting president was as politically vulnerable as many Americans were financially exposed to the financial crisis.

Americans had manifest their opposition to Bush’s Iraq War at the midterm ballot boxes in 2006, leaving a Democratic majority in Congress — including Illinois’ first term senator, Barack Obama, who had been elected only two years earlier.

In his penetrating assessment of the trans-Atlantic scope of the Great Recession, “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Shaped the World,” Columbia University historian Adam Tooze singled out Bush’s dependence on a majority of Democrats (before and after the 2008 election) to respond to the more controversial aspects of the free-fall: namely, the rescue of investment houses and a bailout of the automobile industry.

From a position of weakness, Bush recognized that more was at stake than simply party politics in the 2008 election; American dreams tottered in the balance.

Thus, as the campaign entered its final hours, he took the unprecedented step of informing both John McCain and Obama of the potential damage that their actions and words might have on the overall health of the reeling economy.

Suspending his campaign as the magnitude of the crisis unfolded, Sen. McCain called for a meeting with Bush, congressional leaders and Obama to assess potential solutions to the problem.

It was less what candidate Obama said than Bush’s reaction to Obama’s characterization of the problem that yielded the president’s admiration for the junior senator from Illinois’ stature as a potential leader. “He had a calm demeanor,” Bush wrote in his memoir, “Decision Points,” “and spoke about the broad outlines of the package (to address the crisis).” Bush went on to note that Obama’s “purpose was to show that he was aware, in touch, and ready to help get a bill passed.”

When Obama’s election became a reality, Bush continues in his memoir, he recalled saying a prayer for the incoming administration. He backed up those sentiments with action. Bush doubled down to clean up the implosion of the automobile industry with stimulus funds before handing off the baton to Obama. “I won’t dump this mess on him,” vowed Bush.

As Obama later sized things up, “President Bush would end up doing all he could to make the eleven weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly.” Furthermore, according to Obama’s telling of the story, published in his memoir, “Promised Land,” Bush delivered on the passage of a wildly unpopular stimulus bill (TARP), allowing the new president to “start with a clean slate.”

And while it is true that nary a Senate Republican voted for the new president’s controversial Affordable Care Act, Bush absorbed some of the public opprobrium directed toward the architects of the bailout. That’s a great deal more than any other Republican would do for the new president.

What does this story highlight? First, a modicum of civility between two men with diverging political agendas. Second, a greater concern for the public welfare over political posturing led to a better outcome for all Americans. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bush, even while in office, allowed himself during a fraught White House meeting prior to the election to see his successor as someone “aware, in touch” and capable of assuming the presidential mantle.

Evan Ward is associate professor of History at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history. His views are his own.