The right wing Heritage Foundation virtually demanded that President Obama tap former President Bush to co-head with former President Bill Clinton the Haitian relief effort. But even if Heritage hadn't issued its get Bush on board Haiti marching order, Obama almost certainly would have tapped Bush for the relief effort. He can raise money, lots of it. He showed that during his presidential election and re-election runs.
He's not just a cash cow for Haitian relief. He has the Bush name. That name is still reviled by millions, but the large pack of corporate donors and fat cat contributors who profited mightily during his White House reign are still the major bank rollers of the GOP. Bush can be useful in softening the grumbling of Pat Robertson, some religious fundamentalists, ultra conservatives, and even some GOP officials at the idea of tossing bushels more of taxpayer dollars at Haitian relief.
Bush as a humanitarian pitchman also makes sense because of wife, Laura. She sounded properly empathetic and credible when Bush propped her up as the public and media face for the administration relief effort to Burma after the murderous cyclone ravished the country in 2008.
However, politics as Bush's Katrina debacle amply and painfully proved in 2005 does not halt when disasters hit. The Katrina relief efforts was disgracefully politicized from Bush's near comatose response to it, to the pounding he took from blacks and Democrats for the foot drag. This played a colossal role in rendering his presidency disgraced, discredited and impotent. Katrina also marked the first giant step for the GOP on the slick downhill slope. The party's slide ultimately ended in its train wreck losses in the 2008 presidential election. That was a year ago and much has changed politically since then, and most of it unfavorable for Obama.
But Obama did learn two crucial political lessons from Bush and Katrina. The first was never, ever be caught looking like a proverbial Nero when a natural disaster strikes. The other is that it's not enough to move with due diligence, dispatch and empathy to provide relief to the victims. A president also must give political cover to the response effort. Bush is that cover. He's out of office and more than enough time has passed and enough memories and anger have faded and dissipated where few still take public pot shots at him for what he did and especially didn't do to relieve the misery and suffering of the poor in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. There's also only the barest mention of the shadowy role that Bush may have played in forcing the ouster of Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
Making Bush a point man on the Obama Haitian relief team helps burnish Obama's image as the president who still deeply believes in working with one and all, one all Republicans that is, to get things done. With the Health care reform battle dragging on, the prospect of having to squeeze more stimulus dollars out of congress, waging two, and possibly a third foreign war, and immigration reform looming as a contentious and divisive political issue down the short road, this image is more important than ever to Obama. Obama and the Democrats face possible double digit losses in the House in November, as well as the loss of a few Senate seats. This would be catastrophic for him. Republicans would be even more brash, bold, and warlike in hammering him. They'd effectively stalemate any and every piece of legislation, spending bill and initiative and appointment that Obama tries to get through Congress.
He'd squander countless hours and days battling a united GOP over every little item in his agenda. The GOP would try to snatch a page from the same playbook Obama and the Democrats used against Bush and the GOP in 2008 and tag his presidency as hopelessly partisan and him as a president hopelessly ineffectual. If the tag stuck it could also have a blowback for vulnerable swing state Democrats up for reelection in 2012.
Resurrecting Bush as the benign Obama administration face for the Haitian relief effort makes much sense. In the end that may not do much to help Haiti but it does a lot to help Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.