President Obama blames former President George W. Bush for many of America’s problems, but as the two men prepare for an improbable meeting Tuesday in the East African nation of Tanzania, Mr. Obama is finding reason to praise his predecessor.
The White House announced Monday that Mr. Bush would join Mr. Obama in Dar es Salaam to lay a wreath commemorating the victims of the 1998 terrorist bombings at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania in Kenya. Mr. Bush and his wife, former first lady Laura Bush, are promoting women’s health issues in East Africa on a trip that coincides with Mr. Obama’s weeklong tour of the continent.
As Mr. Obama addressed reporters Monday with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, he lauded Mr. Bush for initiating the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program that provided $15 billion in U.S. aid in its first five years to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa.
“I think this is one of his crowning achievements,” Mr. Obama said. “Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people’s lives have been saved.”
The president said he would use Tuesday’s event with Mr. Bush to “thank him on behalf of the American people for showing how American generosity and foresight could end up making a real difference in people’s lives.”
Even as he praised Mr. Bush, however, Mr. Obama sought to counter complaints that his administration hasn’t measured up to the Republican’s efforts on AIDS relief. AIDS activists have criticized Mr. Obama during this trip for failing to significantly boost PEPFAR funding, as he pledged during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“There’s been an objection that we’ve reduced our commitment there,” Mr. Obama said. “We are serving four times the number of people today than we were when PEPFAR first began, but because we’ve gotten better at it and more efficient at it, we’re doing it at reduced costs. We’re not taking that money out of global health, what we’re doing is putting it back in to tuberculosis and malaria.”
“I don’t think it does any good,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s a hard job. He’s got plenty on his agenda. It’s difficult. A former president doesn’t need to make it any harder. Other presidents have taken different decisions; that’s mine.”
First lady Michelle Obama also will meet with Mrs. Bush on Tuesday, attending the first Africa First Ladies’ Summit, with the theme “Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa.” The George W. Bush Institute is organizing the event.
It’s an unusual meeting for two presidents who have kept their distance for most of the past five years. When he ran for president in 2008, Mr. Obama blamed the U.S. recession on Mr. Bush’s economic policies and blasted his decision to invade Iraq, among other criticisms. Even when Mr. Obama ran for re-election last year, he often made Mr. Bush the target of blame for the weak economic recovery.
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said the meeting of the two presidents demonstrates “the bipartisan support for Africa that exists in the United States.”
“It’s a very welcome symbol that they can both be there at the same time,” Mr. Rhodes said. “We think it sends a very positive message that both political parties in the United States share a commitment to this continent.”
Mr. Obama and his family received a warm greeting from Tanzanians upon their arrival Monday, with many young people lining streets and one thoroughfare being renamed “Obama Avenue.” The president said he feels a “special connection” to the country, noting that some relatives on his father’s side of his family spent time in Tanzania.
Mr. Obama also said he wants to change the U.S. approach with Africa.
“We are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance, but on trade and partnership,” he said. For example, he said, he doesn’t want to provide just food aid, but also assistance to help Tanzanians to grow their own crops.
“Ultimately, the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans,” Mr. Obama said. “And our job is to be a partner in that process.”