Obama portrait ceremony shows how far from normal things have become
The Obamas will be back at the White House on Wednesday. The fact it took this long tells the tale of America’s bitter, fractured politics.
The former first couple will attend the unveiling of their official White House portraits — an honor accorded to all former Presidents and their spouses. The 44th President was back at his old digs earlier this year for a health care event with President Joe Biden, but it will be Michelle Obama’s first return since she handed the presidential mansion over to the Trumps on January 20, 2017.
Generally, the portrait ceremony takes place during the succeeding presidency – typically a lighthearted affair to show bipartisanship and continuity across party lines. Yet, to no one’s surprise, Obama’s portrait dedication didn’t happen during his successor’s White House term; ex-President Donald Trump had no interest in sharing the presidential limelight with anyone. And Obama was hardly going to stand beside the man who authored a racist conspiracy theory that he wasn’t born in the United States. So it has fallen to Biden to do the honors.
Such ceremonies also serve as a reminder that presidents serve all Americans, and that some things – like respect for an office first held by George Washington – supersede politics. Sitting presidents often pay tribute to their predecessor’s record in office, going out of their way to find areas of agreement even if they were from different parties. In the portrait ceremony during then-President Bill Clinton’s first term, he praised predecessor George H.W. Bush – an ex-World War II pilot, US representative to China, CIA chief, vice president and President – for an “entire lifetime of public service.” Bush was gracious in return. And like all returning presidents, he said how much he loved the permanent White House staff and even confessed to missing the press corps.
The event was especially poignant as a show of unity because Clinton had beaten Bush in an acrimonious election in 1992 – though they later became friends.
Nine years later, Bush’s son, George W. Bush, later repaid the compliment when he unveiled portraits of Clinton and ex-first lady Hillary Clinton.
“Welcome home,” the 43rd President told them. “Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency. He filled this house with energy and joy,” he added.
George W. Bush returned to the White House for his portrait unveiling in 2012, more than three years after his two terms ended.
Obama, in his turn, recalled how his predecessor embodied national resolve after the carnage of the September 11 attacks in 2001. And he quipped that he also left him a great cable TV sports package.
But it’s hard to imagine Biden welcoming Trump back to the executive mansion for a portrait unveiling – not least because the ex-President still insists falsely that he won the 2020 election. And if Trump or another hardline Republican wins the White House next, Biden could be kept waiting, too.
When his portrait – which hangs in the presidential mansion alongside his counterparts throughout history – was unveiled, Clinton yearned for an earlier age. “I hope that I will live long enough to see American politics return to the vigorous debate where we argue who is right and wrong, not who’s good and bad.” That is more of a pipe dream now than when Clinton spoke.
This week’s presidential portrait ceremony – and the interruption to this one tiny part of Washington convention – shows how far from normal things have become.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Obamas left the White House on January 20, 2017.