Obama, the Bushes, and the Perfect Ask
Due to Friday’s historic Supreme Court ruling, this installment of Purpose, Inc. will delve into an important relationship lesson that models “the perfect ask” as told through Obama, the Bushes, and what may have really saved health care reform.
Reporting from the 2008 Republican National Convention in St Paul, Minnesota, I heard from a source—a personal friend of the Bushes—that George H. W. and Barbara Bush were leaving early on account of how the GOP and McCain campaign had treated their son. W. will go down in history as one of the worst U.S. Presidents, but parents are parents. And the RNC’s obvious efforts to keep the disastrous presidency of W. at a distance by granting him a courtesy appearance via satellite, introduced on stage by his wife Laura, seemed an insult to a sitting President and heir of a fiercely loyal and powerful clan. Then came President Obama whose open mission is to extend a hand across the aisle and love thy enemy. This strategy failed when working with a Congress bent on destroying him, but it helped save the President’s legislative jewel of health care reform when Obama reached out to the Bushes.
Obama carried one piece of the puzzle—the need to protect Obamacare from a radical conservative Supreme Court—and the Bushes had the other—redemption. These two needs presumably came together in an epic case of Washington back-scratching. In February 2011, Obama awarded Bush Senior the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, calling Bush’s life “a testament that public service is a noble calling.” Born the son of a Wall Street executive and U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Bush Senior seems more nobility than noble and didn’t enter the political fray of public service until he was already in his 40s and a Texas oil millionaire.
Their warm relationship began soon after the 2008 election. President Obama hosted the former presidents for lunch in the White House to cull their wisdom, and looked especially chummy with Bush Senior. The White House Press Secretary at the time, Robert Gibbs said, “The president and the former presidents had helpful advice on managing the office, as well as thoughts on the critical issues facing the country right now. The president-elect is anxious to stay in touch with all of them in the coming years.” Last January, two months before the Supreme Court began hearing arguments over the constitutionality of Obamacare, Bush Senior and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is anticipated to run for President after the heat over his brother’s two terms dies down, paid a visit to the Oval Office, and, as the high court prepared its remarks, on May 31 the Obamas hosted a lunch for 14 members of the Bush family. This luncheon celebrated W.’s portrait unveiling, and provided a platform for the Frat-Boy-In-Chief to deliver comedic shtick alongside a chuckling Obama. Ask any Texas native, and there’s nothing the Bushes love more than a good party.
The warm relationship between Obama and the Bushes is significant in light of the surprising Supreme Court ruling on health care reform. The deciding voter John Roberts owes his prime seat on the bench to both Bush Presidents; he served Bush Senior’s White House in the Department of Justice and Office of the White House Counsel where he argued before the Supreme Court 39 times, and W. appointed him to the D.C. Circuit, and Supreme Court—as Chief Justice.
Any appointment that large does not come without strings, and the Bush Dynasty’s premium on loyalty has long been documented. One entertaining example is Harriet Miers, W.’s personal lawyer who lost her high court appointment after old “thank you” letters to Bush surfaced with such fawning sentiments as, “You are the best governor ever — deserving of great respect.” The satire-inducing “Thank You Lettergate,” along with Miers’ weak constitutional law background, once again reminded us of W.’s penchant for rewarding based on loyalty rather than merit.
Chief Justice Roberts seems as though he’d been groomed for some time by the Bushes for his role, and one can only imagine the “trigger word” used when, presumably, (very likely), after four years of relationship building with the Obamas, a Bush put in a phone call to Roberts asking (telling) him to switch his vote on health care reform. Today, Paul Campos for Salon.com reported that Chief Justice Roberts not only initially sided with the rest of the conservative judges but his chambers spent April and May drafting what would become the first three quarters of the joint dissent. What caused Roberts’ change of heart in the final hour? Major media outlets, including Time magazine, say that he wanted to be on the right side of history, that he chose this important moment to rise above politics. But that powerful motivation was absent when he voted for the democracy-killing Citizens United ruling. It allowed corporations and unions limitless spending on political campaigns, giving the rich the louder voice by far and upholding the conservative tenet that spending money is freedom of speech. Changes of heart that extreme are only the stuff of Aaron Sorkin hits; they rarely happen inside the cynical, greed-fueled Death Star that now defines our government.
What is being overlooked in this historic event is that President Obama’s conviction to reach across the aisle finally worked. For a long time, his frustrated supporters wanted more Chicago and less Hawaii from the President. When Obama entered the White House and asked Congress to put aside childish things, he was indeed naïve. But when he focused his ask on the Bushes who had what he needed—influence—and he could give them what they needed—a warm welcome back onto the gilded perch of the White House after a painful tumble, restoring the spirit of a political family, he had accomplished “the perfect ask” which is two needs coming together and fitting as snug as puzzle pieces.
This is all presumptive, of course.
Photo credit: Mediajorgenyc