By Amie Parnes - 05/31/12 06:09 PM EDT
President Obama attempted to put politics aside on Thursday, welcoming former president George W. Bush to the White House for his portrait unveiling and crediting his predecessor with conveying “extraordinary strength and resolve,” to the American people on Sept. 11.
Before revealing the portrait of Bush and former first lady Laura Bush which will hang in the White House Grand Foyer, Obama struck a serious chord.
“Few of us are blessed with the tremendous honor to actually live here,” the president told an East Room crowd, which included George H.W. Bush, former first lady Barbara Bush and former administration officials including Karl Rove. “I think it’s fair to say that every president is acutely aware that we are just temporary residents. We’re renters here. But we all leave a piece of ourselves in this place.
"And today, with the unveiling of the portraits next to me, President and Mrs. Bush will take their place alongside men and women who built this country and those who worked to perfect it,” the president continued.
Obama--who has criticized Bush frequently on the campaign trail, saying his economic policies created a “mess” that he inherited -- did not go as far in his remarks on Thursday.
But Obama alluded to the financial crisis in his brief remarks.
“The months before I took the oath of office were a chaotic time,” he said. “We knew our economy was in trouble, our fellow Americans were in pain but we wouldn’t know until later just how breathtaking the financial crisis had been. And still in those two and a half months, in the midst of that crisis, George you went out of your way to make sure that the transition to a new administration was a seamless as possible.”
The president, who last welcomed Bush to the White House in the Haiti aftermath in 2010, also thanked the former president’s family for their “guidance and example” during the transition.
“George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all of the living former presidents before I took office, your fine words of encouragement,” Obama said.
But instead of focusing on politics on Thursday, the two men focused on their commonality—their roles as commander-in-chief, and yes, first sports fans.
“You also left me a really good TV sports package,” Obama told Bush with a smile, prompting laughter from the audience. “I use it.”
After his portrait was unveiled, a light-hearted Bush joked that he hoped Obama would seek guidance from his portrait, in which he is resplendent in a gray suit and striped blue tie.
“When you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you’ll be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, “What would George do?” he said to laughter.
“When the British burned the White House…in 1814, Dolly Madison famously saved this portrait of the first George W. Now Michelle, if anything happens, there’s your man,” Bush said pointing to his portrait, and prompting more laughter.
After introducing his wife, Laura, as the “greatest first lady ever,” he turned to his Barbara Bush and said, “Sorry, mom.”
The typically soft-spoken Laura Bush got laughs, too: “Nothing says home like having portraits of the former occupants hanging on the walls,” she said.
Laura Bush said she liked her portrait “a whole lot better than that bobblehead doll,” of herself.
The afternoon provided a break from the usual partisanship in the election year.
Just last week, in a campaign appearance, Obama accused his opponent Mitt Romney of trying to bring the country back to Bush’s policies.
“That was tried, remember? The last guy did all this,” he said at a fundraiser last week.
Romney said Obama’s strategy isn’t working.
“This president is looking for someone to blame,” Romney said during a campaign stop in Colorado this week. “Of course he started off by blaming George Bush, and that worked for a while but…after three and a half years that wears kind of thin.”
Updated at 3:46 p.m.