Was Bush Better?

We must continue to ensure that the people we elect fund and fight for HIV/AIDS related issues. Without that pressure, the focus shifts and the money and support goes away. That’s when people, usually the poor, start dying.

By Chris Johnson

Some praise the Obama administration for laying out a comprehensive plan and bumping up domestic funding to confront the epidemic, while others yearn For the Bush days because of the global initiatives the Republican president started despite his reputation for anti-gay policies. 

Jim Driscoll, a gay Nevada-based HIV/AIDS activist who served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS during the Bush administration, is among those who believe Bush did more to stop the epidemic. 

“I never sat down and had a one-on-one conversation with him, but people who did talked about how open he was to doing things on AIDS and how interested he was in that subject,” Driscoll said. “There wasn’t anything the community asked him to do that I was involved in that he didn’t do.” 

Those who say Bush has done more for HIV/AIDS identify three major initiatives under the Bush administration: the start of a program called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to confront the global AIDS epidemic; streamlining fund allocation under the Ryan White Care Act to include people who have HIV infection without full-blown AIDS; and allowing the first-ever rapid HIV tests to be used outside medical offices. 

“It was a big step forward, and George Bush actually personally had a lot to do with that,” Driscoll said. 

he AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) under Bush didn’t see the waiting list levels that have been seen under the Obama administration. Under Obama, the waiting list last year reached an all-time high of 9,928 low-income people awaiting HIV drugs, through That number has since dropped to about 2,000 today, according to the administration. 

That’s not the only complaint that’s been lodged against Obama, who’s been criticized for reducing the global AIDS program that was set up by Bush. In the most recent budget request to Congress, the White House cut the program by half a billion dollars. 

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said HIV/AIDS was a “higher priority” for Bush than it is for Obama, citing the ADAP waiting list and the funding of PEPFAR as a key difference between the presidents. 

“We had practically no global AIDS program prior to President Bush taking office, and before he left office, they approved a $48 billion plan for PEPFAR, which Sen. Obama voted to authorize and enact,” Weinstein said. “In 2012, President Obama for the first time in the history of the program asked for less money for global AIDS than we had the previous year.” 

“President Obama and his administration are unwavering in their commitment to addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS — on both the domestic and global fronts,” said Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson. “These include steps such as establishing and implementing the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, lifting the HIV entry ban, and strengthening the impact and sustainability of PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.” 

Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is also anticipated to have significant impact on people living with HIV. The Medicaid expansion under the health care reform law is expected to significantly expand coverage because half the people living with HIV already receive care through the program. 

Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said Obama has “definitely” done more on HIV/AIDS — at least on the domestic front — in part because of his willingness to talk about how the disease impacts gay men. 

“They are over 60 percent of the epidemic,” Schmid said. “Focusing on this community that has been ravaged by HIV, allowing a discussion and making gay people more acceptable — this could really turn the tide on HIV prevention for gay men. We have a president who is focusing on the community [and directing] resources that are more in line with how the epidemic is.” 

In comparison, Bush took flak from HIV/AIDS advocates for not taking action on the epidemic in ways that might upset his conservative base. Among his actions: promoting abstinence-only sex education, opposing federal funds for needle exchange programs and remaining silent on gay men and condoms for much of his administration. 

Michael Rajner, a gay Fort Lauderdale-based HIV/AIDS advocate who’s living with AIDS and has been selected as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention, “The difference between Republican and Democrat — in this case, George W. Bush and President Obama — is really the difference in thought, whether they’re going to be addressing HIV/AIDS through ideology or through science, and President Obama has certainly embraced the issues of science,” Rajner said. 

One achievement often attributed to Obama is the lifting of the regulatory travel ban that prevented HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the country — a move that enabled the International AIDS Conference to take place in the United States. But this process actually started under the Bush administration. Under Bush’s leadership, Congress repealed a law that barred HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering as part of the legislative package authorizing PEPFAR. 

“Every president, every politician is limited by his constituents, by the people who put him in office, who voted for him and the people he would depend upon to do the same thing should he run again,” Driscoll said.  

Words excerpted from an article by Chris Johnson. Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association.