Bush, Obama on stage together share laughs

(Photo: Scott Thuman)

(ABC7, AP) - 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.

“It's not a debate over issues, between parties. It's a debate as to whether the portrait actually looks like the president and first lady,” said Fred Ryan, Chairman of the White House Historical Association Board and the president of Allbritton Communications, which owns ABC7 and NewsChannel8.

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.