WASHINGTON — It’s been a White House tradition for decades: A first-term president hosts a ceremony in the East Room for the unveiling of the official portrait of his immediate predecessor that will hang in the halls of the White House for posterity.
Republican presidents have done it for Democratic presidents, and vice versa — even when one of them ascended to the White House by defeating or sharply criticizing the other.
“We may have our differences politically,” President Barack Obama said when he hosted former President George W. Bush for his portrait unveiling in 2012, “but the presidency transcends those differences.”
Yet this modern ritual won’t be taking place between Obama and President Donald Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. And if Trump wins a second term in November, it could be 2025 before Obama returns to the White House to see his portrait displayed among every U.S. president from George Washington to Bush.
Trump is unconcerned about shunning yet another presidential custom, and he has attacked Obama to an extent no other president has done to a predecessor. Most recently he’s made unfounded accusations that Obama committed an unspecified crime.
Obama, for his part, has no interest in participating in the post-presidency rite of passage so long as Trump is in office, the people familiar with the matter said.
It’s too soon to know whether the absence of the uniquely harmonious occasion, when presidents set aside political differences, is just a reflection of a singular dynamic between two presidents whose differences have increasingly been aired in full view or whether it is symbolic of a broader, bitter political era.
But it’s nonetheless a telling snapshot of American politics in 2020.
“You’ve got a president who’s talking about putting the previous one in legal jeopardy, to put it nicely. We have not seen a situation like that in history,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “It takes antipathy of a new president for a predecessor to a new level.”
Katie Hill, a spokesperson for Obama, declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment.
It’s not often that two presidents are together in the White House; only five living men know what it’s like to occupy it as chief executive. Official portrait unveilings are even rarer because the current first lady and her immediate predecessor also attend. A portrait of the former first lady is unveiled, as well.
“It is a somewhat daunting experience to have your portrait hung in the White House,” former first lady Hillary Clinton said at the unveiling of her and former President Bill Clinton’s portraits in 2004. “It is something that really does, more than any other act, sort of put your place in history in this building for all the ages and all the people who come through here to see and reflect upon.”