Without Saying ‘Trump,’ Bush and Obama Deliver Implicit Rebukes – New York Times
Neither of them mentioned President Trump by name but two of his predecessors emerged from political seclusion on Thursday to deliver what sounded like pointed rebukes of the current occupant of the Oval Office and the forces of division that propelled him to power.
In separate and unrelated appearances, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both warned that the United States was being torn apart by ancient hatreds that should have been consigned to history long ago and called for addressing economic anxiety through common purpose. While not directly addressing Mr. Trump, neither left much doubt whom and what they had in mind.
Mr. Bush, the last Republican to hold the White House, spoke out at a conference he convened in New York to support democracy, noting that America first had to “recover our own identity” in the face of challenges to its most basic ideals. While Mr. Trump seeks to raise barriers to trade and newcomers and lashes out at targets with relish, Mr. Bush defended immigration and free trade, denounced nationalism and bigotry and bemoaned what he called the “casual cruelty” of current public discourse.
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“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Mr. Bush said. “We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade, forgetting that conflict, instability and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism. We’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments, forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.”
Mr. Obama was more circumspect, returning to the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office to support Democrats running for governor in New Jersey and Virginia. His speech in Newark was mostly a get-out-the-vote plea, but he defended his record on health care at a time when Mr. Trump has been trying to dismantle it, and he, too, pointed to the social, economic and racial schisms cleaving American society.
“What we can’t have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before that dates back centuries,” Mr. Obama told a campaign rally. “Some of the politics we see now, we thought we put that to bed. That has folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st century, not the 19th century. Come on!”
Both former presidents have largely avoided taking on Mr. Trump since he was inaugurated in January, aside from occasional statements or comments in interviews. But the sight of the two most recent presidents back on the public stage on the same day, however coincidental, reinforced the broader alarm among establishment leaders of both parties.
“The two presidents speaking out so forcefully and eloquently is a warning that some basic principles of democracy that both parties have long supported at home and abroad are in jeopardy,” said Antony J. Blinken, who served as Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state and attended Mr. Bush’s speech on Thursday.
The bipartisan apprehension was illustrated by Mr. Blinken’s presence. As managing director of the newly formed Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement led by Mr. Obama’s vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Blinken attended to kick off a joint project with the George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House to counter the erosion of support for democratic principles and institutions at home and abroad.
Similarly, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who served under President Bill Clinton, joined former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served under Mr. Bush, for a panel discussion with Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations. At times, the two former secretaries gently coached Ms. Haley to resist Mr. Trump’s efforts to cut the State Department budget.
Afterward, Mr. Bush and Ms. Albright hugged and sat together, with the former president draping his arm over her shoulders.
Mr. Bush also released a “call to action” report examining threats to the liberal democratic order and making recommendations for protecting American institutions. The paper was drafted by Peter H. Wehner, a former adviser in his White House, and Thomas O. Melia, a former State Department official under Mr. Obama.
For Mr. Bush, democracy and free trade are longtime themes, but there was an edge in his address that went beyond the usual nostrums. Asked by a reporter as he left the hall whether his message would be heard in the White House, Mr. Bush smiled, nodded slightly and said, “I think it will.”
In his speech, the former president lamented that “bigotry seems emboldened” and “our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
Pointing a finger at the nation’s leaders, he said, “We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed; it the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
He acknowledged public discontent. “We should not be blind to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalization,” he said. “People are hurting. They’re angry and they’re frustrated. We must hear and help them. But we cannot wish globalization away any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution.”
He also offered what seemed like a rejoinder to a president who uses Twitter as a weapon in a perpetual political war. “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children,” Mr. Bush said.
The Bush family has never been fond of Mr. Trump, who belittled Jeb Bush during their contest for the Republican presidential nomination last year. Neither the former president nor his father, former President George Bush, voted for Mr. Trump, and the two issued a joint statement in August denouncing white supremacists after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., which Mr. Trump blamed on “both sides.”
The younger Mr. Bush seemed to return to that on Thursday. “Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed,” he said.
He also emphasized the seriousness of the Russian effort to influence last year’s election, interference that Mr. Trump has dismissed as a “hoax” perpetuated by Democrats and the news media.
“America has experienced a sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions,” Mr. Bush said. “According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other.”
Advisers and allies to Mr. Bush said he spoke out because he was troubled about the larger forces he sees in the United States and around the world. Tom Bernstein, a longtime friend, said that the moment was a “stress test for democracy” and that Mr. Bush wanted to make his points in a “very direct but very dignified” way.
“We’re all called on to make sure that we get our country back, and I think all the things the president spoke of today, it’s a reaffirmation of American values,” Mr. Bernstein said.
Mr. Wehner said Mr. Bush was not interested in quarreling with Mr. Trump. “There’s enough political food fighting going on,” he said. “He doesn’t want to be part of that. It’s not part of that. What we need is people with some authority in American life to articulate a vision of the common good and the moral good and a vision of America.”
Emulating Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama has mostly stayed quiet since leaving office. But with accomplishments like his health care program under siege, he returned to the fray at least elliptically on Thursday. In appearing for Philip D. Murphy in Newark and Ralph S. Northam in Richmond, Va., Mr. Obama said the off-year elections next month would be a chance to cast a verdict on current politics.
“The world counts on America having its act together,” he told supporters in Newark. “The world is looking to us as an example. The world asks what our values and ideals are and are we living up to our creed.”
He was energized and comfortable and largely steered away from specific policy debates, but made a point of noting that he “created millions of job” and “by the way, we covered a whole bunch of folks with insurance, too.” His allusions to Mr. Trump, however, were still clear.
“Not only will you move New Jersey forward,” he said, “but you’re going to send a message to the country and you will send a message to the world that we are rejecting the politics of division, we are rejecting a politics of fear, that we are embracing a politics that says everybody counts.”
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the given name of a former secretary of state. She is Madeleine K. Albright, not Madeline.
Follow Peter Baker on Twitter at @peterbakernyt.
Nick Corasaniti and Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.
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