President Barack Obama, who rarely passes up a chance to highlight the “mess” he inherited when he took office, put politics aside to welcome George W. Bush at the White House for the unveiling of Bush’s official portrait.
The office of the president carries a unique weight that is only truly understood by those who’ve carried it, Obama said today at a ceremony in the East Room of the executive mansion.
“That’s why, from time to time, those of us who have had the privilege to hold this office find ourselves turning to the only people on earth that know the feeling,” he said. “We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences.”
Bush joked that his portrait brings “an interesting symmetry” to the White House portrait collection, the first of which depicts George Washington.
“It now starts and ends with a George W,” he said.
Obama earlier hosted a private lunch for the former two-term Republican president and first lady Laura Bush in the Red Room of the White House. They were joined by the ex-president’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, former first lady Barbara Bush, as well as other members of the Bush family.
Among the guests at the ceremony were Republican political strategist Karl Rove, John Ashcroft, attorney general under George W. Bush, and former Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey.
Bush’s portrait, by artist John Howard Sanden, portrays him standing in the center of the Oval Office, his right hand on an arm chair. The former first lady’s portrait shows her in the Green Room, which was refurbished under her direction in 2007.
Bush left the White House in January 2009, as the economy was in free-fall and the U.S. was waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Republican former president frequently serves as a foil for Democrat Obama in campaign speeches.
Obama says Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is promoting a repeat of Bush’s economic policies, which he blames for contributing to the worst U.S. recession in more than seven decades.
“They either want to do nothing at all or they want to double down on the same failed policies that got us into this mess,” Obama said in a May 24 speech in Iowa. “We just tried their ideas for nearly a decade and it didn’t work out.”
For today, presidential protocol trumped politics.
Bush separates the office from the “political rhetoric,” and considers Obama’s criticism on the campaign trail “no big deal,” Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman, said in a telephone interview.
“People have asked me whether it’ll be awkward,” Fratto said. “Actually, it may be awkward for President Obama. As President Bush would say, ‘This isn’t my first rodeo.’”
Bush has stayed off the political stage since leaving office. He last appeared at the White House more than two years ago, on Jan. 16, 2010, when Obama named Bush and former President Bill Clinton to lead a humanitarian mission for Haiti’s earthquake victims.
“There are certainly political differences” between the two, Jay Carney, Obama’s spokesman, said today at a briefing for reporters in Washington. “But there is so much in common for the men, thus far, who have occupied this office.”