Following tradition, Obama redecorates Oval Office

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 31, 2010 

APTOPIX Oval Office Decor

Renovations to the Oval Office, including a new carpet, drapes, wallpaper and furniture, are seen. The famous Resolute Desk remains.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE — J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama moved into the White House last year, he didn't rush into the presidential tradition of redecorating the Oval Office.

It wasn't a priority given the state of the economy and how much was on his plate, aides said. Besides, Obama liked the golden-hued "sunburst" rug that former first lady Laura Bush had chosen for the room, the one that President George W. Bush often gushed about for the sense of optimism he felt it conveyed.

However, while the Obamas vacationed this month at Martha's Vineyard, a quiet makeover of the Oval Office was under way, right down to removing the rug that embodied Bush's sense of how sunny the world could be.

The revelation of the new decor came Tuesday, of all days, as Obama prepared to deliver his second Oval Office speech that night to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq, once dubbed "Bush's war," the one Obama opposed from the start.

In the old rug's place is one by Scott Group of Grand Rapids, Mich., made of 25 percent recycled wool in tones of wheat, cream and blue.

It features the presidential seal in the center and quotes from some of the leaders Obama admires most: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt. In that order, the quotes are "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," "Government of the people, by the people, for the people," "No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings" and "The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us."

Whether metaphor or mere coincidence, Obama's decision to redecorate as he completes a change in Bush's war policy is rooted in presidential tradition. Nevertheless, it's sure to stir some debate: Is it an ostentatious move when so many Americans are struggling economically?

The White House said the changes were paid for through the White House Historical Association with money from the Presidential Inaugural Committee; in other words, not by taxpayers. The tab wasn't released, but the White House statement described the project as "a comparable level of redesign" to what Bush and Bill Clinton did when they held the office.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs described the changes to ABC News as "some very modest changes not paid for at taxpayer expense," and said Obama was only doing what many predecessors had done, who "put their own little stamp on the office they spend so much time in."

Obama's renovations aren't eye-popping. The tones are beige and brown with subtle strains of red, white and blue. He's keeping the same desk that most presidents use, one that England's Queen Victoria gave President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, built from the timbers of the British Arctic exploration ship Resolute. Among others, Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Clinton and Bush all used it.

There's new paint and wallpapers. A new desk chair, coffee table, couches and table lamps are American-made.

Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to have a work space in the West Wing, but it was small and rectangular, not oval, said William Bushong, a historian with the White House Historical Association.

William Howard Taft ordered expansions and renovations and in 1909 became the first U.S. president to work in an oval-shaped office, though not the same one that stands today. Taft's color scheme was more like a hunting lodge, lots of dark brown and olive green.

The modern Oval Office, bigger and in a different spot, was completed in 1934 for FDR, with a lighter and more ornate feel.

"From that point onward you really see presidents expressing their style, their character, their feel of leadership in the Oval Office," Bushong said.

Most presidents since FDR — Jimmy Carter was one exception — have made at least some adjustments, often to the draperies and the rugs. Kennedy chose a red rug. Richard Nixon and Clinton favored gold drapes and blue rugs.

The Oval Office rug traditionally bears the official presidential seal. Harry Truman famously redesigned the seal in 1945, turning the eagle's head to face the same direction as the olive branches rather than the arrows.

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