The art of President Biden’s Oval Office

It’s difficult to understate just how many important decisions and addresses have been made in the Oval Office. The President of the United States’ office is undoubtedly one of the most important rooms in the world, and with a new president comes a new décor. But why does this matter, and what might it tell us about the next four years?

Let’s start by looking at the paintings. Gone is the portrait of the USA’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, who forced many Native Americans to relocate, which resulted in thousands of deaths. Jackson tried to present himself as an anti-establishment politician and Trump’s fascination with him was obvious. In its place is a perhaps slightly less divisive American figure, Benjamin Franklin, as painted by Joseph Duplessis. Franklin is not an uncontroversial choice either though, as during his life he enslaved two people, George and King. However, his later opposition to slavery shows Biden thinks he is a less outrageous figure to hang on the wall than the unapologetic Jackson. It also represents a move away from the somewhat Jacksonesque politics of Trump, and Franklin’s interest in science mirrors that of Biden’s, which explains the piece of moon rock on display, too. 

A portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt has been added to the walls too, the only president to win four elections and a figure many consider to be the greatest Commander-in-Chief. He had to deal with both the effects of the Great Depression and the Second World War, perhaps reminding the current president that even a struggle like the coronavirus pandemic can eventually be overcome. He’s not the only one of Biden’s predecessors to make an appearance, as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are all present as well. These might reassure some of the current president’s conservative opponents that America will not be changed too much. On the other hand, his more left-wing critics might be glad to see more diverse figures celebrated, with busts of civil rights activists Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. all present. Today’s activists might hope these are constant reminders that inequality still exists, and that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s newest resident will remember and address this. Biden’s fans might say this mix of presidents and protestors is part of his call for unity and shows America can get better whilst still remembering its past, while those more critical of him might say such things are performative and what matters is what he does, not what is displayed. 

The President’s desk is the Resolute desk, something that has remained in the room for a few decades now. On the desk lies a box of pens and a cup and saucer set, and Donald Trump’s Diet Coke-summoning button has been removed. This arrangement is not about comfort. It is clearly a work desk, with a simple cup of tea or coffee the only thing that might momentarily stop President Biden from getting on with his job. Biden has a lot to be getting on with – controlling the pandemic, stopping the far-right, protecting the environment, and reducing inequality are all probably at the top his to-do list. The desk shows he doesn’t have time for frivolities or distractions. However, family pictures prevent his work area from looking bare, and might remind those making decisions in the Oval Office that the actions they take will affect other human beings. 

Now absent are the US military flags that Donald Trump had on display, although the Bill Clinton-era gold curtains used by the last administration remain. Also used by Bill Clinton, and returning after several years away, is a dark blue rug with floral trim. Some have suggested, due to its colour, it represents the Democratic Party, but it’s also possible that this wasn’t intended. 

Obviously, we cannot predict what the next four years of American politics will bring based on an office redesign alone. But it is interesting because of what it might tell us about the Biden administration. He’s a dedicated individual who clearly is passionate about many causes, but he is also not quite the radical some in politics would want, or some would fear. Just like with the Oval Office, expect several changes, but also don’t expect America to change entirely beyond recognition.

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