Wednesday’s ceremony in the East Room marks a rare occasion for celebration between two presidential administrations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are expected to convene a who’s who of past and present administration officials — from unique point of view to have served in both.
It was in the same room that Obama presented Biden with a surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2017, a tearful ceremony that reflected the two men’s deep respect for each other. Although the two enjoy playing their relationship in public, there are limits to their friendship, officials said.
Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, told CNN the Covid-19 pandemic played a role in the timing of the unveiling. The WHHA, a non-profit organization, facilitates and funds the creation of the portraits.
“Covid hit us two and a half years ago, and I think it’s important that these (portraits) be revealed at a time when the public has access to the White House and they can be seen,” said said McLaurin. .
While there is no hard and fast rule as to when a White House portrait should be unveiled, ceremonies have often been hosted by a former president’s immediate successor. And when he was in office, President Donald Trump never held a ceremony for Obama’s portraits.
What will Obama’s portraits look like?
Details about the pieces unveiled on Wednesday are a closely guarded secret, with artists and art movers signing confidentiality agreements to keep things under wraps ahead of the big day. But the Obamas have often used art as a tool to express their tastes, so it’s no surprise that their White House portraits do the same.
“There’s going to be some evolution in these portraits over time…and I think that’s actually going to be exciting,” McLaurin said in a preview of Obama’s upcoming portraits. “I think it’s going to be a bit of a magical moment. I think it’s going to be an evolution of art.”
He continued, “We’re now heading into the first third of the 21st century. And I think in the minds of most Americans, we see presidential portraits as these very traditional 19th century portraits. But the art and the taste of art evolve and change.”
While living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Obamas chose to showcase several contemporary and modern artists.
Amy Sherald, who painted the Smithsonian portrait of the first lady, defies convention on race by depicting her characters’ skin in shades of gray. Kehinde Wiley, who painted the former president, reinvents old master paintings with black subjects.
Traditionally, the last two sets of presidential portraits are placed in the Cross Hall of the White House – although Trump chose to move the portraits of Bush and Clinton to the Old Family Dining Room – which was essentially used as a storage room during his White House – after a quarrel with the two families.
Biden has moved Bush portraits and Clinton portraits to Cross Hall, but with a new portrait of Obama, Clinton may have to be moved soon.
Wednesday ceremony at the White House
The Obamas’ return to the White House marks a rare moment for current and past administrations to converge and revisit a presidential legacy.
Unlike the 2012 unveiling, Wednesday’s event will have mostly attendees from the same party — some attendees with ties to both administrations.
The Obamas will be joined by family, friends, former Cabinet members and senior administration officials at the unveiling.
Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother who lived in the White House residence during their presidency, plans to attend the ceremony, an Obama aide told CNN, but daughters Malia and Sasha are not expected to join their parents.
Other expected attendees include former Obama chief of staff (and current US ambassador to Japan) Rahm Emanuel, former senior adviser David Axelrod, former Treasury secretaries Jack Lew and Timothy Geithner, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, former Attorney General Eric Holder. , former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan and former White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Biden and Obama forged a close relationship when they served together, but their friendship has its limits. Although they speak occasionally, they are not in daily or weekly contact, people familiar with the matter said.
After two terms in the shadow of Obama, Biden has, at times, differentiated himself from his predecessor. Officials said there was also some competition between the two men.
Their story, though one of a partnership, has also been colored by various slights, real or perceived, that still linger.
Obama declined to endorse Biden over other Democrats in the 2020 primary, a step both men said was necessary to allow for real competition within the party. Four years earlier, Obama had considered Hillary Clinton as his Democratic successor instead of Biden, who had decided not to run as he grappled with the death of his son.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the unveiling would mark an enduring symbol of the “power of hope and change” in the White House.
Jean-Pierre highlighted the close relationship between the two presidents, saying: “During their eight years in office, a close partnership between the two men has developed through the ups and downs of work and life.
Trump portraits are next
The White House Historical Association is in the “early stages” of the processes of portraying former President Trump and former first lady Melania Trump, McLaurin said.
“The focus is on specific artists who are likely to do their portraits,” McLaurin added.
A source familiar with the situation told CNN that discussions about the portraits began over the past six months at Mar-a-Lago — Trump’s Florida residence — and that the former president recently sat down to pictures. However, it’s unclear whether Trump posed for the White House portrait painter or for photographs specifically for the portraits.
On Tuesday, Jean-Pierre declined to say whether Biden would extend an invitation to Trump if his portrait was completed under the Biden administration.
The Trump Political Action Committee donated $650,000 to the Smithsonian Institution in July to help underwrite the Trumps’ portraits, according to Linda St. Thomas, chief spokeswoman for the Smithsonian.
The Trump Save America PAC leadership donation marks the first time funds have come from a political action committee since the institution began raising private funds for presidential portraits — a practice that began with the portraits associated with former President George HW Bush, St. Said Thomas.
St. Thomas said another private donation of $100,000 also helps defray costs associated with the portraits. The funds, totaling $750,000, will go towards artist fees, shipping, framing, installation and events.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify where President Donald Trump had portraits of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton moved during his time in the White House.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Fredreka Schouten, Gabby Orr, Betsy Klein and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.