Magic Johnson confounded some activists this week when he argued that President Barack Obama has fought AIDS more fiercely than any other president — including George W. Bush, who was widely praised while in office for making worldwide AIDS relief a top international priority.
Johnson made the remarks at Howard University on Thursday, which was National Black AIDS/HIV Awareness Day.
“President Obama is doing a wonderful job, I think — better than any president on HIV and AIDS, bringing it to the forefront,” he said. “Also he backed it up with funding, as well.”
“He’s always been at the forefront,” Johnson added. “I really have patted him on the back for that — for jumping out in front of issues that normally our president doesn’t jump out in front of.”
The former NBA superstar in 1992 quit President H.W. Bush’s National Commission on AIDS, calling the effort a “disappointing” show of “lip service [and] photo opportunities.”
But organizations that champion AIDS-related causes have for several years maintained that President Obama also hasn’t lived up to his promises on the issue.
Despite pledging in 2008 to provide $50 billion for the global fight against HIV and AIDS, for example, the Obama administration has spent only $5.5 billion per year on the effort, and is slated to reduce funding for AIDS efforts by approximately $214 million in 2013.
“This latest action merely confirms what people with HIV/AIDS and their advocates have long suspected — the president simply is not committed to fighting global AIDS,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in a statement.
Weinstein cited Bush’s creation of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as an unprecedented step forward for international health.
“We had practically no global AIDS program prior to President Bush taking office,” Weinstein told The Washington Blade. “And before he left office, they approved a $48 billion plan for PEPFAR, which Sen. Obama voted to authorize and enact. This year, President Obama, for the first time in the history of the program, asked for less money for global AIDS than we had last year, and there’s $1.4 billion in unspent money in PEPFAR.”
President Obama has, however, received some acclaim for his handling of AIDS on the domestic front, in part because of provisions in the Affordable Care Act and his public approval of same-sex couples.
“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,” said Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute.