WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama shared the stage with former President George W. Bush, the predecessor he often inveighs against, in a friendly White House welcome for the unveiling of the 43rd president's official portrait.
Obama told Bush and an assembly of former Bush aides and Cabinet members: "We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences."
Bush, light-hearted and expansive, saluted artist John Howard Sanden for "a fine job with a challenging subject."
He jokingly noted a symmetry with the first presidential portrait, of George Washington: "It now starts and ends with a George W."
It was a rare public appearance for the former president, who was joined by his wife, Laura, and other family members, including his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush.
Obama thanked Bush for his service to the country and said it takes someone who has served as president to understand the challenges that face the White House occupant.
"In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy, no choice you make is without cost, no matter how hard you try, you're not going to make everybody happy," Obama said. "I think that's something that President Bush and I both learned pretty quickly."
What's more, he told Bush, "you left me a really good TV sports package ... I use it."
The unveiling ceremony amounted to a reunion of old Bush-era hands, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of State Colin Powell, political adviser Karl Rove and homeland security head Tom Ridge. Before that, Obama and his wife, Michelle, hosted more than a dozen members of the Bush family for a private lunch.
The good humor and the well-wishes belied sharp political differences between the two men.
Obama is still bad-mouthing Bush's time in office, and it's not just because of the debt and the unfinished wars Obama inherited. Obama sees Bush's economic ideas as the same as those of his current rival, Republican Mitt Romney, so he lumps them together.
Still, the political reunion put aside any campaign rhetoric, as other gatherings among past and current presidents have, to honor nostalgia and the service of the former president and his wife, Laura.
Obama has never run against Bush, although it was easy to forget that during the 2008 race between Obama and Sen. John McCain, when Bush's tenure was so often Obama's target.
In his inaugural address in 2009, Obama declared that "we are ready to lead once more," seen by some as a dig at Bush, who was seated over his shoulder. Even now, hardly a day goes by when Obama's team does not blame Bush for a mess.
It was just one week ago that Obama, revving up campaign donors, turned Bush into a punch line. Obama depicted presumptive Republican presidential nominee Romney as a peddler of bad economic ideas, helping the rich at the expense of the middle class. He then added: "That was tried, remember? The last guy did all this."
On Thursday, the last guy came back.
Only 43 men in history, and five men alive, have held the job.
Obama and Bush have a cordial and respectful relationship, but they are not close.
Both are political veterans who are able to separate political tactics from what they see as an overarching community among people who have served in the Oval Office, according to people close to them.
History has marked this moment before, with grudges put aside.
When Bill Clinton came back for his portrait unveiling, Bush lauded him for "the forward-looking spirit that Americans like in a president." This after he ran for the presidency to "restore honor and dignity" after Clinton's sex scandal.
And when Clinton welcomed back George H.W. Bush, whom he had defeated, he said to him and his wife: "Welcome home. We're glad to have you here."
Obama has enlisted Bush's help on earthquake relief for Haiti, and the two stood together in New York City last year in marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America. They have also spoken at least three times at signature moments over the last three years, including the killing of Osama bin Laden — a point Obama made Thursday during the East Room ceremony.
The White House points out that Obama praises Bush sometimes, too, such as for taking on illegal immigration.
The visit was layered with political story lines.
Bush's brother Jeb is a potential vice presidential candidate to Romney. Bush's father has developed a kinship of sorts with Obama. And then there is Bush himself, who has endorsed Romney but is still viewed by many in his party as politically toxic.
More than any president in recent memory, Bush has not just intentionally faded from the public spotlight but all but disappeared from it.
Bush was last at the White House in January 2010 to help out with Haiti humanitarian relief.
AP News Researcher Julie Reed Bell and Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.
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