June 10, 2023

The politics of Obama’s official portrait unveiling

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Ties with Biden, Trump, looming midterms, hang over a typically fun event

A former president’s official portrait unveiling is almost always a lighthearted event, largely devoid of partisan politics, a White House tradition with none (ok, less) of the cringe factor that attaches to the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon.

The last time it happened, in May 2012, President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, joked around in the East Room and celebrated the unique burdens of office as a kind of bond, one uniting “the only people on Earth who know the feeling,” the Democrat said.

On a lighter note, Obama observed: “George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all the living former Presidents before I took office, your kind words of encouragement. Plus, you also left me a really good TV sports package.

Bush joked about the crowd size “at my hanging” and quipped to Obama he was pleased “that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘what would George do?’

As president, Donald Trump did not hold the event.

But today, it’s back. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama for their official portrait unveilings.

And beyond the corny jokes and the camaraderie of the exclusive club of presidents, it’s a line from Obama’s 2012 remarks that may have seemed saccharine then but is surely salient now.

  • “One of the greatest strengths of our democracy is our ability to peacefully, and routinely, go through transitions of power,” he said. “It speaks to the fact that we’ve always had leaders who believe in America, and everything it stands for, above all else — leaders and their families who are willing to devote their lives to the country that they love.”

The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory, the current president’s warnings that “pro-insurrectionist” and other election-denying Republicans threaten American democracy, and Trump demanding he be reinstated or have the 2020 election done over invest those remarks with new meaning.

That’s just one of the dynamics shaping the ceremony.

Another is the midterm election contest. Biden has recently thrown himself into campaign mode, attacking Republicans and touting his accomplishments as he tries to make the vote a choice, not a referendum, at a time when his job approval ratings have recovered from record lows but are still a liability. He reportedly plans to travel 2 to 3 times per week.

Obama has also taken the plunge. He did an Aug. 30 fundraiser with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee on Martha’s Vineyard with Eric Holder. He’ll raise money for Democratic Senate candidates Sept. 8 in New York, for their House counterparts in San Diego on Sept. 28 (featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and another in San Francisco Sept. 29 for the DNC.

“He’ll also stump with campaign/GOTV [get-out-the-vote] events as we get closer, with a special focus on roles and states that are important to the administration of the 2024 elections,” according to a person familiar with his plans.

The two campaigners could not be more different. Obama the frequently professorial, who built a high-tech online operation that helped him to capture the presidency. Biden more the old-fashioned grip-and-grin retail politician. Democrats need them both.

Which gets us to the final dynamic: the Biden-Obama relationship.

  • My colleague Tyler Pager shared some details Tuesday night about some lingering tensions, including some connected to Obama’s previous visit to the White House, this past April, when he began his remarks with “Thank you, Vice President Biden.”

“Biden laughed and saluted, and Obama walked away from the podium and gave Biden a hug, vowing he was just making a joke. ‘That was all set up,’ he said.”

But for some longtime Biden staffers, the zinger punctured the celebratory mood. They saw the quip, intentional or not, as part of a pattern of arrogance from Obama and a reminder of the disrespect many felt from Obama’s cadre of aides toward Biden.”

In his book “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden chronicled Obama trying to talk him out of running for president in 2016. The most quoted line comes after a face-to-face discussion: “The president was not encouraging.”

And Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes wrote in his own book that “[i]n the Situation Room, Biden could be something of an unguided missile.”

The remarks at the portrait unveiling are more likely to resemble Obama’s words when he awarded his vice president the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 2017, calling him “the best vice president America’s ever had” and a “lion of American history.”

But at a perilous time for American democracy, the pomp and palling around may highlight rather than mask how much the country has changed since 2012 and how a once-routine celebration now seems like a vestige from a different time. Not that we have to paint you a picture.

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“There has been zero turnover among the secretaries, administrators and directors that form the official Cabinet, a level of consistency representing a sharp departure from Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who had already lost three Cabinet officials at this point in his presidency.”

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“In a statement, the White House said Biden will travel to Detroit next Wednesday, Sept. 14, to visit the show. No further details about when he would be there, whether he would make remarks or whether he would go anywhere else in metro Detroit were immediately available.”

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At 1:30 p.m., Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff will attend the unveiling of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s White House portraits.

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