May 25, 2012, 6:39 PM
By PETER BAKER
President Obama will host former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, at the White House next week for the unveiling of their official portraits, bringing the two presidents together at a time when Mr. Obama has been castigating Mr. Bush’s record on the campaign trail.
The ceremony on Thursday follows a longstanding tradition of welcoming back former presidents and first ladies for the hanging of their portraits in the White House. Each time a new painting is added, those of other recent presidents are rotated to different spaces in the main floor of the White House and up the large staircase. The first lady paintings are generally hung on the floor below.
Such ceremonies often bring together current and former presidents with rivalries, grudges or awkward relationships. But the timing of this unveiling is particularly delicate as Mr. Obama uses Mr. Bush as a foil on the campaign trail against former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, his presumptive Republican challenger. Although Mr. Obama generally does not mention Mr. Bush by name, he often says Mr. Romney wants to replicate the former president’s agenda but “on steroids.”
At a campaign fund-raiser in Redwood City, Calif., on Wednesday, for instance, Mr. Obama said Republicans wanted “bigger tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans,” “deeper cuts” in Medicare and education, “even more power” for banks to do as they please, and fewer regulations that protect consumers. “But that’s not new,” he added. “That was tried, remember? The last guy did all this.”
He presented Mr. Bush’s record in caustic terms. “We watched a record surplus that was squandered on tax cuts for folks who didn’t need them and weren’t asking for them,” he said. “We saw two wars being waged on a credit card. We saw speculation in the financial sector, reaping huge profits for a few folks who were making bets with other people’s money, but it was a flimsy kind of success. Manufacturing left our shores. A shrinking number of Americans did really, really well, but a growing number saw falling incomes and stagnant job growth.”
Mr. Bush, by contrast, has offered virtually no commentary on his successor in the three years since he left office, saying “he deserves my silence.” He has stayed out of the campaign to oust Mr. Obama, offering a four-word endorsement for Mr. Romney only when asked by a reporter as he headed into an elevator after an unrelated event in Washington last week.
Former Bush aides have bristled on his behalf at Mr. Obama’s attacks, arguing that the president was trying to distract from his own failures. Neither Mr. Bush’s office nor the White House had any comment.
The two men have not always been at odds. Mr. Obama expressed gratitude for how attentive Mr. Bush was in ensuring a smooth transition in the winter of 2008-9, and he later tapped his predecessor to work with former President Bill Clinton on relief efforts after a killer earthquake in Haiti. Mr. Obama likewise called Mr. Bush after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and as recently as March, said he gave “a lot of credit to my predecessor” for his immigration policies.
But this is a campaign season, and as soon as Mr. Bush leaves the White House next Thursday, he can expect to again play a cameo role in Mr. Obama’s campaign speeches for the next five months.
Bush has been extremely dignified in not responding to Obama's attacks, but I suspect that things are going to be a bit, shall we say, chilly, between them at the event. Hopenchange cartoons has a preview of the portrait: