Obama’s Iraq Speech: Bush's Shadow Looms Over the President

As President Obama announced the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, he acknowledged his predecessor and revealed he had phoned him before the speech. Mark McKinnon on why Obama would do well to learn more from Bush.

George W. Bush as he left the White House on Jan. 1, 2009. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo)

The gracefully arched ceiling of the Oval Office can make the biggest of men look small. Its soft beauty belies its cruelty as it presses down with the weight of a nation’s hopes and fears on the shoulders of those who dare sit at the Resolute desk.

An impatient people, we are quick to judge those who occupy this office. As a nation, we measure the service of these mortal men against the long shadows cast by giants of the past, sanctified for posterity in marble and granite. But time passes, and truth is discovered.

As we near the anniversary of 9/11 and continue to fight for the cause of a free people in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wish the conversation would continue.

As President Obama struggles to right a ship swamped by economic and natural disasters, and unrest at home and abroad, he wonders at the fickle nature of a once hopeful but now seemingly ungrateful nation.

For presidents who came before, it is surely no surprise that the people are looking more for results than just promises kept. But I hope President Obama learns from the wisdom offered by one of his predecessors: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

More Daily Beast writers on Obama’s speechTen Iraq War LegaciesThe perspective of time is already softening the once harsh edges of judgment on the legacy of President George W. Bush. Torn by worry, folks long for his steadying hand. They miss his warmth and empathy. Slings and arrows, still fired his way, now ricochet back.

A recent survey shows Bush is now six points more popular than Obama in the 40 districts deemed most vulnerable to Republican takeover. A poll of Louisianans shows a majority, 54 percent, now think Bush’s leadership on the Hurricane Katrina disaster was better than Obama’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; only 33 percent disagree. And while Obama’s approval rating has fallen 20 points since March 2009, Bush’s has climbed 10 points, according to Gallup.

Even some of the loudest voices on the left in recent weeks have written warmly about Bush’s moral authority. The toughest of Bush’s critics, including Maureen Dowd, Eugene Robinson, Joe Klein, and my fellow Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart, acknowledge an occasional pining for 43.

But the people spoke first. From Minnesota to Florida and Texas, billboards have sprung up on roadsides rhetorically asking, “Miss me yet?” With the question emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers, sales are brisk, even in Martha’s Vineyard, where the Obama family recently vacationed.

Heartwarming photos of George and Laura Bush greeting returning troops at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport have spread like wildfire online. These quiet moments of humanity continue the tradition of his eight years as president, honoring families of the fallen and wounded warriors without fanfare, but with an embrace and recognition of the sacrifices made.

In what seems like far more than a decade ago, his 2000 campaign messages were a call to conscience for a nation hungry for a return to respect for the highest office. Bush’s platform then: compassionate conservatism, a humble foreign policy, economic policies to spur growth, education reform, energy conservation, and increased domestic energy production to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

He did not seek the office to change the tides of the world. He sought only to continue the country on its “ unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born.". Understanding “the stakes for America are never small,” he held steadfast to the belief that “America's faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea.”

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No one knew how that sea would rage, and how that faith would be tested come Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, the man and the country changed forever.

And George W. Bush became the president we needed at one of the worst moments in our history.

In those horrible hours following the attacks on America, we momentarily saw our fear reflected back in the president’s eyes. We then saw his resolve and took comfort in his strength. We shared his tears as he held the shield of a fallen police officer. We shouted with him from atop the rubble. We then quietly shared his commitment to respect the peaceful faiths of others.

Speaking to a shaken nation, he vowed to do everything in his power to keep us safe. And he did.

While the rest of us returned to our lives much as they had been before 9/11, Bush never did. Though the battles were brutal and the cost in treasure great, he continued to promote human liberty, human rights, and human dignity in Iraq and Afghanistan. While others called the cause lost, he pushed for the surge in Iraq. He sent unmatched levels of funding to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa. He worked to reform education, and he pushed for entitlement reforms but was blocked by a Democrat-controlled Congress. And despite the attacks of 9/11, stock market scandals, Katrina relief, and wars far from home, Bush worked with Congress to reduce the budget deficits from $412 billion in 2004 to $162 billion in 2007. And the now much-debated Troubled Assets Relief Program was thought to be a critical measure by both Bush and then Senator Barack Obama to prevent a total collapse of the U.S. and global economies.

In his farewell address to the nation, Bush offered: “There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results.” Obama echoed those words in his Oval Office address Tuesday night.

There were good days and tough days for Bush. But it was never about popularity polls. “When history looks back,” he said, “I’d rather be judged as solving problems and being correct, rather than being popular.”

Bush has been diplomatic and gracious in retirement, careful never to criticize Obama, his decisions, or his policies. He seems to be enjoying the title he is proudest of—not president, but citizen of the United States of America.

Though his words at times may have been jumbled, the eloquence of his heart spoke. His meaning was always clear. We knew who he was. His convictions were firm. And his belief in the promise of America, unwavering.

I salute Obama for calling his predecessor Tuesday, and for acknowledging Bush’s love of this country in the address. But the page cannot be turned until it has been read and its lessons understood. As we near the anniversary of 9/11 and continue to fight for the cause of a free people in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wish the conversation would continue.

The one Obama continues to blame is the one from whom he could learn.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.