Was Obama Ungracious to Bush Last Night? Or Too Gracious?

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Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Going into last night's Oval Office address on the end of the combat in Iraq, one of the big questions was how much credit President Obama would give to former President Bush for the surge that made withdrawal from a reasonably stable Iraq even possible. Obviously, Obama was a big opponent of the surge. Would he be admitting that he was wrong by thanking Bush for his tough decision? Does it even make any sense to thank Bush for fixing a disaster he helped to create in the first place? (Where is Bush, by the way? Is he hibernating to save up energy for his impending book-publicity marathon?) Ultimately, here's how Obama tackled the issue:

This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush. It's well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one can doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I've said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hopes for Iraqis' future.

Merely acknowledging that Bush supported the troops and loved the country (duh?) is, obviously, not the same as giving him credit or thanks. But was it gracious and generous enough?

Michael Gerson, Post Partisan/Washington Post:

Obama’s mention of Bush was prominent, but not particularly gracious. He said that “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security” - as though any of those things were in doubt. Obama could not bring himself to praise Bush for the surge strategy that made last night’s speech possible.

Eugene Robinson, Post Partisan/Washington Post:

Politicos will be universally dissatisfied. Liberals will say he gave George W. Bush too much credit; conservatives, not enough. But I think he did himself and his party some good tonight. He was generous enough to Bush, resolute in his intentions and obviously sincere in his praise of the troops. He wore the presidency with an accessory that Americans expect and appreciate: gravitas.

Richard Cohen, Post Partisan/Washington Post:

Obama did have his moment. He extended a hand to his predecessor, George W. Bush, and he said it was “time to turn the page.” This was Obama at his most generous, and it was a theme of his that deserves praise. As a nation, we suffer a kind of slow arsenic poisoning from toxic partisanship. But the best he could say about Bush is that he, too, loved the troops and his country. This I, for one, never doubted. But these are also the qualities of a Boy Scout -- nice, but not quite presidential. Bush was a dismal president.

E.J. Dionne Jr., NPR:

He was very generous to President Bush. I thought he didn't re-litigate the war and whether we should have fought it. My hunch is that people who say the war is a disaster will wish he had been more critical. And Republicans will say, why didn't he mention the surge? But I think the generosity there was very powerful.

New York Times editorial:

Mr. Obama graciously said it was time to put disagreements over Iraq behind us, but it is important not to forget how much damage Mr. Bush caused by misleading Americans about exotic weapons, about American troops being greeted with open arms, about creating a model democracy in Baghdad.

Jennifer Rubin, Contentions/Commentary:

[I]n his recap and praise of George W. Bush’s administration, he never explained how it was that we succeeded in Iraq. It was of course that same surge that we are now using in Afghanistan .... Mr. President, Bush was not just a great guy — he was right. It was one more instance of the lack of introspection and grace that has characterized Obama’s entire presidency.

Jonah Goldberg, Corner/National Review:

This is what passes for bipartisan graciousness at the highest level of national security? Bush was a really swell guy who loved his country. Okay. What about the fact that he was right about the surge and our ability to leave Iraq (as much as we are) is attributable not to Obama’s fidelity to his campaign pledge, but to a decision made by Obama’s predecessor, a decision Obama opposed vociferously. I don’t expect an “I was wrong” from an Oval Office address (though it would be nice — as it would have been from Bush more than once, too). But Obama’s lawyerly avoidance of reality makes him seem petty and raises the suspicion that he can’t think straight about these issues. That is dangerous.

Joe Klein, Swampland/Time:

And so this speech was a necessary ceremony of the presidency, if a thankless one. The commentators will say the President didn't transcend. His critics will say that he refused to acknowledge the "success" of the surge. But he also refused to indulge in relitigating the stupidity that launched the war.

Victor Davis Hanson, Corner/National Review:

Also, the general framework of withdrawal was scheduled as part of the Bush/Petraeus status of force agreements with the Iraqis. Obama is to be congratulated for keeping to it, but chastised for suggesting that it was his own — and more so for not referencing the surge that made it all possible. So, again, it was a weird moment: Are we supposed to think that after 20 months a president is responsible for his own record (e.g., Bush need not be credited for his lonely, but critical support for the surge that allowed the withdrawal), but not quite responsible when it is inconvenient (Bush must be blamed for leaving a bad economy that Obama’s borrowing cannot cure)?

Ed Morrissey, Hot Air:

His one reference to his predecessor, who bucked strong opposition from Congress (including Obama) to persevere in the winning surge strategy, was to note that George Bush loved his country and the troops, about as dismissive as one could be without simply ignoring Bush entirely in the speech. Why bother mentioning Bush at all if that’s what Obama had to say about him? It sounded very much like an afterthought, a way of checking a box on his way to get to the end of the speech.

David Frum, Frum Forum:

Wasn’t that an awfully thin compliment to President Bush? Really, if that’s all you will say - better not to say anything.

Adam Serwer, Plum Line/Washington Post:

[W]hile conservatives are busy angrily denouncing the president for not giving more credit to Bush for implementing the surge -- by which they mean not acknowledging that conservatives were right -- that wouldn't have been appropriate either. This speech was about the commitment of those who actually served, not the better part of valor displayed by those who sat in front of their keyboards and hammered out empirical or ideological arguments for or against the war.