WASHINGTON — After more than a decade’s hiatus, an American presidential tradition returns as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden host former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama at the White House to unveil their official portraits on Wednesday.
The White House has presidential portraits on display in various rooms beginning with George Washington, America’s first president, which was bought by Congress. Other earlier presidents’ portraits were added to the collection as gifts. Since 1965, the portraits were funded by the private, nonprofit White House Historical Association, starting with Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, and John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy.
“Recent presidents and first ladies typically select their respective artists before leaving the White House and approve the portraits before their formal presentation to the public and induction into the collection,” the association said in a statement. “The portrait artists aim to capture each unique appearance and personality, piecing together our presidential history through these individual works of art.”
The Obamas’ official portraits have been kept tightly under wraps, and the public will only find out about the artists who painted them when the paintings are unveiled.
It will be Barack Obama’s second visit to the White House after leaving office, following his April visit to celebrate the 12th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, the health care law known as Obamacare that he signed in 2010. It will be Michelle Obama’s first visit since her husband’s term ended in January 2017.
Break in tradition
Regardless of party affiliation, the president in office usually hosts and unveils the portrait of his immediate predecessor. Obama did so for George W. Bush, Bush for Bill Clinton, and Clinton for George H.W. Bush.
The tradition broke under President Donald Trump, but it’s unclear whether it was due to objections from Trump or Obama, or external circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was probably a mutual feeling that wouldn’t have even needed to be expressed on the part of the Obamas or the Trumps,” said Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Trump had promoted the so-called birther movement based on the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and had no right to the presidency.
“I would have understood why President Obama and Mrs. Obama wouldn’t have wanted to come,” Perry told VOA. “It just would have seemed unseemly on both sides to have two people who were obviously not on civil speaking terms, at least on the Trump side, to come to the White House.”
There is no doubt that Obama much prefers to have his former vice president unveil his portrait rather than the man who was a repudiation of his presidency, said Thomas Schwartz, presidential historian and professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.
Biden’s presidency is seen in many ways as Obama’s third term, Schwartz told VOA. “President Obama is getting the opportunity to have his portrait unveiled by the man who really owes everything to him.”
While presidents and first ladies typically begin discussions on their official portraits even before they leave the White House, Trump is unlikely to have done so. Until now he insists that he, not Biden, won the 2020 election and is reluctant to participate in events that former presidents usually undertake upon leaving office, such as setting up his presidential library.
“Trump does not want to do these legacy-type programs or actions because it makes him in the minds of the American people, a former president,” Perry said. “He wants to be the next Grover Cleveland, that is a president to serve two non-consecutive terms.”
The White House did not respond to VOA’s question on whether they have begun discussions on a Trump portrait.
The former president has hinted that he may run again in 2024. He is currently embroiled in several controversies, including a probe on his involvement in the January 6 storming of the Capitol by his supporters, and a Department of Justice investigation on possible violation of the Espionage Act and the Presidential Records Act, for bringing classified documents to his Florida home upon leaving office.
Obama after office
Obama, who is now 61, is very young for a former president, said Schwartz. “He might become a bit like Jimmy Carter in the sense of being a very active ex-president compared to, say, Ronald Reagan, who was much more, much older when he gave up the presidency.”
Since leaving office, the Obamas have written memoirs, undertaken highly paid speaking engagements, and worked on the Obama Presidential Center located in Chicago’s Jackson Park. They are involved in the Obama Foundation and the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the organization Obama founded in 2014 to provide opportunities for boys and young men of color.
In 2018, the Obamas signed a deal with Netflix to have their production company produce documentaries for the streaming service. Earlier this month Obama won an Emmy Award for narrating the documentary, “Our Great National Parks,” adding to two previous Grammy wins for audio versions of his memoirs. Michelle Obama won a Grammy in 2020 for reading her audiobook.
While Barack Obama campaigned for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections and for Biden after he became the Democrats’ official presidential nominee in 2020, he has largely stayed away from politics. He honored the unwritten tradition of former presidents’ refraining from passing judgment on his successor, until 2020 when he criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis policeman that sparked protests around the country against systemic racism and police brutality toward African Americans.
With the unveiling of their portraits, the Obamas — the first Black residents of a White House built by enslaved people — will join the other presidents and first ladies of the United States whose faces adorn the halls of the highest office in the land, Perry pointed out.
“And that’s one of the most iconic visions of our democracy and our republic at home and around the world,” she said.