WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has made him a foil for more than three years, the man he blames for the “mess” he inherited of an economy in free fall and wars gone astray. But it will be smiles and handshakes Thursday when Obama welcomes former President George W. Bush to the White House.
Obama will preside over the unveiling of the official portraits of Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, a celebration that will set aside political differences, at least for the day, in one of the enduring traditions of presidential camaraderie.
The visit comes after years of Obama criticisms of the Bush record and policies and as Obama has amped up his campaign trail criticism of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, in part by portraying the former Massachusetts governor as an unwelcome return to the Bush years.
But observers and the White House said Wednesday that they expected presidential protocol to carry the event, which first lady Michelle Obama, former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush also will attend.
Awkward? “Not at all,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. “I know the president looks forward to it.”
He acknowledged that are “differences there without question between his approach and the approach and the policies of his predecessor.” But the unique personal bond between presidents can overcome even sharp political disagreements.
“There is a community here with very few members that transcends political and policy differences,” Carney said. “There is so much shared experience. . . . There’s not a lot of need to talk about where they differ.”
At least not face to face. Just last week, Obama accused Romney of "peddling the same bad ideas that brought our economy to the brink of collapse. . . .
“That was tried, remember?" he asked a crowd in Redwood City, Calif. "The last guy did all this."
That "last guy" will join Obama at the ceremony, but he won’t find it awkward, either, said Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman.
“This is not his first time at the rodeo,” Fratto said. “I think he has a pretty mature view of politics and the people in the office and the ability to distinguish between the two.”
Bush might even joke about his standing. At the unveiling of another painting, in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 2008, Bush joked that, "I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging.”
Bush also has met Obama before, both before and after the 2008 election.
On his first day in the Oval Office, Obama found a personal note of welcome from Bush, a private president-to-president tradition. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Obama hosted Bush and former President Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden, where Obama called them "gentlemen of extraordinary stature" for their commitment to the quake-ravaged country. The Obamas and the Bushes also joined last September to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"They’ve had the occasional dealing outside the glare of the political klieg lights, and they get along fine," University of Texas presidential historian Bruce Buchanan said. "They both understand the business that they’re in and understand that it’s an election year.”
Bush, for his part, has kept a low political profile. He hasn’t criticized Obama, and he offered a low-key endorsement of Romney, telling ABC News, “I’m for Mitt Romney,” as he slipped into an elevator after a speech May 15 on human rights.
Though photographs now provide a running documentary of presidential life, William Seale, the editor of White House History, a journal by the White House Historical Association, wrote that the tradition of oil portraits “lingers at the White House from another time, as does much from the past.”
The first presidential portrait hung at the White House was of George Washington. Congress paid $800 for the Gilbert Stuart painting.
They’ve not been without controversy, though. Former President Richard Nixon’s portrait once was removed and consigned to storage, after complaints from professors at Duke University Law School, which had paid for the painting. Seale noted that “more vocal” law professors had protested Nixon’s handling of Vietnam and Watergate.
Nixon, though, has since been restored to the walls of the White House.