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Former president George H.W. Bush takes a look at his official portrait after White House unveiling.

Former president George H.W. Bush takes a look at his official portrait after White House unveiling. (Dayna Smith/Washington Post )

Barack and Michelle Obama will return to the White House on Wednesday for the unveiling of their official White House portraits, in an East Room ceremony hosted by President Biden and first lady Jill Biden.

Joe Biden was Barack Obama's vice president for two terms in office, and the two men formed a close partnership "through the highs and lows of the job and of life," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

"President Biden and Dr. Biden are honored to have former president Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama back to the White House for the unveiling of their portraits, which will hang on the walls of the White House forever as reminders of the power of hope and change," she said.

The event will also mark the return of the long-standing tradition of sitting presidents welcoming their predecessors - regardless of party - to the White House to unveil their official portraits. In his time in office, Donald Trump hosted no events at the White House for Obama, whom he accused - without evidence - of spying on him during the 2016 campaign.

Here's what to know about this White House tradition and what to expect at the ceremony Wednesday.

Don't the Obamas already have their official portraits?

The White House presidential portraits are separate from the ones in the "America's Presidents" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. The Obamas' Smithsonian portraits, painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, were unveiled at the museum in 2018 - about 13 months after Obama left office - and made a splash for their distinctive styles and bold colors. Those paintings are on a national tour and scheduled to return to Washington in November.

What will happen Wednesday?

In the past, portrait unveilings have been an opportunity for former presidents and their spouses to gather with members of their administration and White House staff, some of whom they may not have seen in years.

Barack Obama has visited the White House only once - in April for an event about the Affordable Care Act - since he left office in January 2017. It will be Michelle Obama's first time back at the White House since their family moved out.

Some former Obama administration officials who will be in attendance are former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now the U.S. ambassador to Japan; former senior adviser David Axelrod; former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius; and former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder.

Past unveilings: Who was there, and what transpired?

The White House began to its policy of trying to get life portraits of the presidents and first ladies starting in the 1960s, under then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, according to Betty Monkman, who began working at the White House in the curator's office in 1967 and served as chief curator from 1997 to 2002.

The Kennedys' own portraits were unveiled in 1971. The portraits of former president Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, were unveiled in 1981 "without fanfare."

The unveiling ceremonies have usually been warm, bipartisan affairs, sprinkled with good-natured jokes. When former president Gerald Ford's portrait was unveiled at a 1978 ceremony at the White House, he joked: "Considering what [artist] Ray Kinstler had to work with, he did very well."

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush hosted Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, for their official White House portrait unveiling. Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president for eight years, joked, "for years our opponents were hoping to see President Reagan's back against the wall here in the White House. I don't think this is exactly what they had in mind when they talked about it."

In 1995, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, glanced at the portrait of Bush, whom he defeated three years earlier, and before unveiling it, said, "If I look half as good as you do when I leave office, I'll be a happy man."

In 2004, President George W. Bush, a Republican, hosted Clinton and his wife, Hillary, at the White House for the unveiling of their portraits.

"As you might know, my father and I have decided to call each other by numbers," Bush told Clinton in his remarks then. "He's 41, I'm 43. It's a great honor - it's a great pleasure to honor number 42. We're glad you're here, 42."

In 2012, the Obamas hosted George W. Bush and Laura Bush to unveil their official portraits, and thanked the Bushes for their guidance during the transition.

"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. I use it," Obama said then to laughter. "Laura, you reminded us that the most rewarding thing about living in this house isn't the title or the power, but the chance to shine a spotlight on the issues that matter most."

Why now?

It is unclear why the Obama portrait unveiling at the White House is taking place now, more than five years after the end of his second term. In his time in office, Trump hosted no White House events for Obama, whom he had bitterly attacked for years, including leading the "birther" movement that had baselessly accused Obama of not being born in the United States. It was perhaps an unsurprising break from tradition for a president who broke dozens of other long-standing norms. Trump, who has long spread baseless claims of widespread election fraud, also did not attend Biden's inauguration last January.

A representative for Trump did not respond to questions sent by email Tuesday.

When will the Trumps' White House portraits be unveiled?

It is unclear when Donald and Melania's White House portraits will be completed and unveiled, though NBC News reported last year that the former president had "begun participating in the customary process" of having a portrait done.

Jean-Pierre on Tuesday deferred questions about whether the Bidens would host the Trumps at the White House if their official portraits were completed while Biden is still in office.

"We defer those questions to the White House Historical Association, who actually ... lead the process on official portraits for both presidents and their spouses," Jean-Pierre told reporters.

The Smithsonian Institution confirmed last month that a $650,000 donation from a political action committee controlled by Trump will almost entirely fund portraits of the former president and former first lady Melania Trump for the National Portrait Gallery - the first time in recent memory that a political organization has financed a former president's portrait for the museum.

Two artists have been commissioned for the Smithsonian Institution's paintings of Donald and Melania Trump, but the artists' names have not been released.

The Washington Post's Peggy McGlone contributed to this report.


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