WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama tapped former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on Saturday to head a major fundraising effort to underwrite Haiti's long-term recovery, even as concerns grew about delivering life-saving aid to earthquake victims.
"Just send your cash," Bush said, discouraging Americans from contributing blankets, water or similar items. The former president, making his first visit to the White House since leaving office a year ago, appeared with Clinton and Obama in the Rose Garden.
The three men said a website, www.clintonbushhaitifund.org, has been established to accept donations for the relief and reconstruction effort.
"There are going to be some tough days ahead," Obama said. "People are still trying to figure out how to organize themselves. There's going to be fear, anxiety, a sense of desperation in some cases." He tried to reassure Haitians that "there is going to be sustained help on the way."
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Obama has mounted a major effort to help Haiti recover from the earthquake, which may have killed as many as 50,000 people and devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Responding to the vast humanitarian need also boosts Obama's effort to repair and reshape the United States' image overseas.
Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday to Haiti, where she was to meet Haitian President Rene Preval.
White House aides rejected suggestions that the trip was little more than a photo op that could interfere with relief efforts. The secretary of state traveled to Haiti from Puerto Rico aboard an aircraft already scheduled to bring supplies to U.S. embassy personnel, and would depart on a plane scheduled to evacuate about 50 U.S. citizens, they said.
In tapping Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama is following a model established by his predecessor, who asked former presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush to lead a similar effort after the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia.
It also offered an opportunity for the younger Bush to step back into the limelight after a year of private life, during which surrogates, such as former vice president Dick Cheney, harshly criticized Obama's national security policies.
Obama, with Bush standing to his left and Clinton to his right, praised Bush's response to the tsunami and his administration's efforts to combat HIV in Africa. But he pointedly did not mention the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina, widely seen as botched.
George C. Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, said there are many differences between ex-U.S. presidents pitching in after an earthquake hits another country, and the response to Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.
"With Katrina it was a matter of implementing policy; in this case it's a matter of raising funds," Edwards said. "But, sure, to the extent that people criticized (Bush) for not caring about black people, which I always thought frankly was a silly criticism, to the extent some people may have that in their heads, this may rectify that situation, may clarify that he really does care about people, independent of color."
Edwards said he expects to see Bush return more to the public eye in 2010, giving speeches and being more involved in causes. "I think we're going to be seeing more of him and the more we can use someone like George W. Bush for humanitarian purposes and for the common good, the better it is," he said.
White House aides said that, as the magnitude of the Haiti earthquake became clear, Obama determined that a long-term recovery effort would be needed, with substantial private sector assistance and a way to coordinate it. He called Bush early Wednesday evening and then spoke to Bill Clinton.
According to its website, donations to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund will be channeled through the two ex-presidents' nonprofit foundations.
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