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First Thoughts: Re-examining Bush

Re-examining Bush… But will history -- especially when it comes to Iraq -- truly allow him to get a second look?... 2016 could give us an early answer… What the Bush library/museum displays (and what it doesn’t)… A stroll down Memory Lane: Looking back at Bush’s presidency… A handful of conservatives bring up the charge that Obama hasn’t kept the country safe… Obama fundraises last night -- before attending today’s library dedication and memorial for those in West, TX… Another example of the difficult time Boehner/Cantor have had in herding cats… And Congress to exempt itself from Obamacare?

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush participates in a signing ceremony inside the Freedom Hall for the joint use agreement between the National Archive and the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University on April 24, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.

*** Re-examining Bush: Ex-presidents almost always get a second look. Long after the Vietnam War forced him to abandon his presidential re-election bid in 1968, Lyndon Johnson is now lionized (most recently by the New York Times) for his ability to twist arms. After the Cold War's end and David McCullough's popular book, Americans view Harry Truman more favorably than when he left office. And Bill Clinton -- who was dogged by impeachment, the Marc Rich pardon, and his contribution to his wife's defeat in 2008 -- is now enjoying his highest poll numbers in a very long time. So naturally, with the George W. Bush library being dedicated today, the re-examination of the nation's 43rd president is well underway. The Washington Post recently wrote about Bush’s rebounding poll numbers, though a recent NBC/WSJ poll found his fav/unfav numbers (35%-44%) relatively unchanged since 2010. And former Bush ’04 campaign manager Ken Mehlman argued that Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and push for immigration reform is a GOP roadmap for better success with minority voters. But here’s the question to consider: Will history -- especially when it comes to Iraq -- truly allow Bush to get a second look?

George W. Bush and Laura Bush chat with TODAY's Matt Lauer in the replica Oval Office at the new Bush Library, discussing his years as president and the legacy he's left behind. "I gave it my best shot for America," the former president says.

*** Can he escape his Iraq legacy? To be sure, Bush supporters tout his accomplishments, such as the No Child Left Behind education law, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the Africa/AIDS work, and the Roberts-Alito appointments to the Supreme Court. Other events -- like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crisis -- would have challenged any president. But it's the Iraq War that Bush will find hard to escape. After all, it was a war of choice that resulted in the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers, the deaths of many more civilians, the destabilization of the Middle East (think Iran would be the threat it is today without the Iraq War?), and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 (who essentially campaigned against Bush in his two winning elections). More importantly, the war's primary justification -- Iraq having weapons of mass destruction -- turned out to be incorrect. “People will make their own judgment,” Bush told NBC’s Matt Lauer this morning on “TODAY,” adding: “Removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision.” However, a Jan. 2013 NBC/WSJ poll found 59% of the public saying the Iraq War wasn’t worth it.

*** 2016 could hint at an answer: Perhaps a key test if history looks more kindly on Bush's presidency is the 2016 election. History's failed presidencies have tended to result in the opposition party going on a run in future presidential contests – think of the six Republican victories after James Buchanan, the five Democratic wins after Herbert Hoover, and the three-straight Republican victories after Jimmy Carter. So who wins in 2016 (Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, the GOP nominee?) could tell you something about Bush's legacy, at least from American voters. Another 2016 story to watch: Does brother Jeb Bush run? "If Jeb's last name was Brown instead of Bush, he'd probably be the front-runner for the Republican nomination," Haley Barbour told recently Politico. And does the ultimate GOP nominee run on something like Bush's "compassionate conservative" platform, or does the nominee run away from Bush as Romney did (remember, Bush was a no-show at the GOP convention, and Romney rarely invoked him on the campaign trail)? Speaking of 2016, don’t miss former First Lady Barbara Bush saying on “TODAY” she DOESN’T want her son Jeb running. “We’ve had enough Bushes.” Leave it to Mama Bush -- the straightest of straight talkers -- to make the unpredictable news of the morning here. She’s legendary inside the family for telling it like it is and not hiding her true feelings well in public. And, well, she did it again. The official line from George W. and Laura about Jeb is “run” -- they have not even hesitated when asked.

*** What the museum displays (and what it doesn’t): What’s striking for those of us who have been able to tour the new Bush library and museum is that there is no dedicated section on Iraq; instead, the war is discussed as part of the “global war on terror.” What’s more, former Vice President Dick Cheney and top political strategist Karl Rove have almost no presence in the library, despite being two of the most consequential actors in the Bush administration. What is clear is the presence of former First Lady Laura Bush, however. This isn’t just the George W. Bush Library; it’s the George W. and Laura Bush Library. It’s folks Laura respected from the Bush team who are featured in the library -- from Condi Rice to folks like Andy Card and Josh Bolten.

*** A stroll down Memory Lane: Per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill, here are some of the more memorable quotes from Bush’s eight years in the White House:
Jan. 20, 2001
: “America, at its best, is compassionate. In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise.” (First inaugural address)
Sept. 14, 2001
: I can hear you! I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who ... knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon. (Bush at WTC site)
Jan. 28, 2003
: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” (2003 State of the Union)
May 1, 2003
: Officers and sailors of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, My fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. (“Mission Accomplished” event)
Nov. 3, 2004
: “Laura and I wish Senator Kerry and Teresa and their whole family all our best wishes. America has spoken, and I'm humbled by the trust and the confidence of my fellow citizens.” (Election Night 2004)
Nov. 4, 2004
: “Let me put it to you this way. I earned capital in the campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.” (Press conference after re-election victory)
Jan. 20, 2005
: “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.” (Second inaugural address.)
Sept. 2, 2005
: “Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.'' (After Hurricane Katrina)
Jan. 10, 2007
: “So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad. This will require increasing American force levels. So I have committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.” (Announcing Iraq surge)

*** A handful of conservatives bring up the charge that Obama hasn’t kept the country safe: Given the Bush library dedication and given the news out of Boston last week, maybe we should have braced ourselves for a handful of conservatives arguing that the Obama administration is “failing” to keep the country safe from terrorists. But do leaders of the GOP really want to have this argument? This could get ugly -- fast. Here was freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) on the House floor yesterday: “In barely four years in office, five jihadists have reached their targets in the United States under Barack Obama: the Boston Marathon bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square Bomber, the Fort Hood shooter, and in my own state—the Little Rock recruiting office shooter. In the over seven years after 9/11 under George W. Bush, how many terrorists reached their target in the United States? Zero!” Conservative writer Jennifer Rubin has made a similar point. “Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11.” (Note the words “after 9/11” from both Cotton and Rubin.) Interestingly, when Lauer asked Bush today whether the country was safer, the former president answered in the affirmative, but he added, “People on the homeland are aware that we are not completely secure.” Until “hopelessness” has been eradicated, Bush said, “we’ll still be vulnerable.” The most serious of security folks have said for years (since 9/11) that the hardest attack to prevent is the lone wolf. Don’t be surprised if some of the more senior GOP folks denounce this line of attack on Obama.

*** Obama fundraises … then hits the Bush library and service for those killed in West, TX: Meanwhile, are we the only ones surprised that Obama decided to hit a fundraiser in Dallas last night before attending today’s Bush library dedication (where he speaks at 11:00 am ET) and then the memorial service for those who died in West, TX (at 3:15 pm ET)? It’s an odd tone.

*** Another example of the difficult time Boehner/Cantor have had in herding cats in the House: “Republican leaders in the House of Representatives on Wednesday withdrew a bill that would change the Obama administration's healthcare law amid conservative concerns that the legislation was replacing one big government program with another,” Reuters writes. “The House cleared the way to debate the bill, which was designed to help Americans with pre-existing medical conditions while preventing the administration from using an alternate source of funding to implement its healthcare law. But the ‘Helping Sick Americans Now’ bill was pulled from the schedule before members could cast their votes, suggesting that Republican leaders did not have enough support from their own members. Democrats called the bill a political ploy by the Republicans.”

*** Congress to exempt itself from Obamacare? And finally, if this Politico story is true, we’d imagine Congress' approval ratings will sink even lower (if that's possible). “Congressional leaders in both parties are engaged in high-level, confidential talks about exempting lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides from the insurance exchanges they are mandated to join as part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, sources in both parties said.” NBC’s Kasie Hunt says that this all comes down to whether Capitol Hill’s employer (i.e., the federal government) can subsidize health-care costs for their employees like most businesses do. All of this might be irrelevant because the Office of Personnel Management still hasn't made a key ruling about whether the government is allowed to continue providing subsidies to federal employees. If they rule that it's allowed, the talks aren't necessary.

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