The two most recent presidents on Thursday blasted the state of US politics in events that were separated by less than 20 miles.
First, it was former President George W. Bush. The most recent former Republican president lambasted a political culture that caused “bigotry” to seem “emboldened.” The public comments were Bush’s most pointed since President Donald Trump took office in January.
“In recent decades, public confidence in our institutions has declined,” the 43rd president said at an event in New York hosted by his namesake institute. “Our governing class has often been paralyzed in the face of obvious and pressing needs. The American dream of upward mobility seems out of reach for some who feel left behind in a changing economy. Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
The forum was branded as being “focused on freedom, free markets, and security.” It featured speakers such as former first lady Laura Bush, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. And Bush provided a substantial condemnation of the state of US politics.
Bush said “people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American” and noted that “bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”
He also mentioned Russia’s influence in the 2016 presidential election, calling on the US to “harden its own defenses.”
“Our country must show resolve and resilience in the face of external attacks on our democracy,” he said. “And that begins with confronting a new era of cyber threats. America has experienced a sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions.”
Later in the day, in nearby Newark, former President Barack Obama hit the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office and took a subtle swipe at the political climate that Trump has cultivated in his rise to power.
At an event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Obama, who has avoided criticizing Trump publicly, criticized the “politics of division” that “we see now.”
“What we can’t have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before that dates back centuries,” Obama said. “Some of the things we see now, we thought we put that to bed. That’s folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st century, not the 19th century.”
It’s longstanding tradition for past presidents and vice presidents to provide a grace period for a new administration, during which they do not provide commentary critical of the current White House. While both Bush and Obama did not mention Trump, the criticism of US politics from both men is unprecedented at this young stage of a presidency.
It is rare for former presidents to criticize an administration at any point, even past the so-called grace period.