WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has filled the Oval Office with images of American leaders and icons, focusing the room around a massive portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt that hangs across from the Resolute Desk. It is a clear nod to a president who helped the country through significant crises, a challenge Biden now also faces.
The Oval Office is synonymous with the power and majesty of the American presidency. All incoming presidents change the decor of the largely symbolic room to offer a sense of their personality and the type of presidency they hope to have. Biden’s is notable for the sheer number of portraits and busts of well-known American historical figures.
Some are paired, with paintings of former President Thomas Jefferson and former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton hung near each other – the two men frequently disagreed and were placed together to illustrate the benefits that come from differing views. Biden’s office said the paintings were twinned as “hallmarks of how differences of opinion, expressed within the guardrails of the Republic, are essential to democracy.”
“This Oval is an Oval for Day One,” said Ashley Williams, the deputy director of Oval Office operations, as she gave the Washington Post an exclusive 20-minute tour of the office before Biden set foot inside.
“It was important for President Biden to walk into an Oval that looked like America and started to show the landscape of who he is going to be as president,” Williams said.
Busts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy flank a fireplace in the office. Biden often refers to the impact both men made on the country as part of the civil rights movement.
Biden is also nodding to segments of the Democratic Party’s base via historical references. Behind the Resolute Desk is a bust of Cesar Chavez. The office also includes busts of Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt and a sculpture depicting a horse and rider by Allan Houser of the Chiricahua Apache tribe that once belonged to the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii – the first Japanese American elected to both houses of Congress.
A painting of Benjamin Franklin is intended to represent Biden’s interest in following science. The painting is stationed near a moon rock set on a bookshelf that is intended to remind Americans of the ambition and accomplishments of earlier generations.
The room also includes paired paintings of former presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and a bust of former Sen. Daniel Webster, who forcefully defended the Union.
President Donald Trump’s light gold drapes have been replaced with a different, darker shade of gold that hung in President Bill Clinton’s Oval Office. The dark blue rug was also in the office during the Clinton administration and was selected because Biden liked the deep hue of it. The furnishings, including the couches and tables, all came from the White House collection, so they will look familiar to those who watch the room closely.
The decorations were all switched out Wednesday, an aide said. During a tour, a reporter was asked to avoid stepping on the freshly vacuumed rug so that it would be in pristine condition when Biden arrives. Seeing a fleck of dirt on the rug, one aide stooped down to remove it.
Gone are the flags of the branches of the military that Trump displayed behind the Resolute Desk. Biden has installed an American flag and another with a presidential seal.
Also removed was the portrait of former President Andrew Jackson that Trump hung in his office. Trump and Jackson both ran as populists, and Jackson was the first president to be directly elected, and he proposed ending the Electoral College.
But for many, the decision reinforced allegations of racism emanating from the White House. Jackson kept enslaved people and signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to thousands of Native American deaths as tens of thousands were forced to move to make room for white settlers.
The act helped lead to the “Trail of Tears,” in which an estimated 4,000 Cherokees died during the harsh conditions of a long march during the forced relocation in 1838 and 1839. The Cherokees called Jackson “Indian killer”; the Creek called him “Sharp Knife.”
The portrait drew particular ire during a November 2017 Oval Office event when the Jackson portrait served as a backdrop for Trump as he was honoring Navajo code talkers.
Trump had also reinstalled a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office. It had originally been lent to George W. Bush by Britain and then was returned as Barack Obama took office. Biden does not have the bust on display.
When asked about the bust in 2016, Obama cited aesthetics. “There are only so many tables where you can put busts – otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered,” he said.
Obama did have a bust of King in the Oval Office, which Trump kept, though he moved it to a different area of the room.
The pièce de résistance in Obama’s Oval Office was the Emancipation Proclamation, the document signed by Lincoln that freed all enslaved people in the Confederate states.
One aspect of the office that hasn’t been touched: the Resolute Desk. Biden is keeping the same desk Trump and several previous presidents have used. Although, Biden allegedly got rid of the Diet Coke button Trump had installed.
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