Presidents, of course, are all different, and one way their individual differences, political and personal, manifest themselves is through a change in decoration of the Oval Office. It's a tradition that has happened since the Oval Office came into being. When George W. Bush came into office in January 2001, he had the Clinton rug removed and replaced with the old Reagan rug, symbolically indicating in whose footsteps he wanted to follow. In contrast, when Barack Obama became president, he kept George W. Bush's decorations for almost two years, not to indicate a continuity of policy but to avoid a display of needless extravagance in the midst of a recession. How the decorations are treated means something, both to the president and to the American people.
Its decor is also subject to unintentional symbolism. For example, while John F. Kennedy was traveling to Dallas in November 1963, the Oval Office was redecorated with a deep scarlet rug and new furniture. He never lived to see the change (in fact, Mrs. Kennedy never saw it either; the decorations were taken down immediately after the assassination, before she returned to the White House), and Lyndon Johnson, soon after his assumption of the presidency, went back to the dull Truman-era green. The optimism to take on everything--even the traditional old Oval Office--that had seemed so bright was extinguished.
Gerald Ford, upon Nixon's resignation, had the Oval Office redecorated, not as much because he disliked the look as to indicate a severance between his administration and his predecessor's. The eagle carpet was removed, replaced with a nice pale yellow, patterned rug. Jimmy Carter kept the decorations during his administration, though he rearranged the furniture a bit.
Ronald Reagan on his last day in office
Replica of Reagan Oval Office (at Reagan Library)
Reagan was, of course, followed by the first George Bush, who changed the colors of the office to a sky-blue motif. As far as my aesthetic is concerned, it's pretty atrocious, but whatever.
George Bush Oval Office (note the Reagan couches are the same)
Then came Bill Clinton. Frankly, of the motifs I've seen, I like his the best. He used a bold blue rug and two couches with alternating red and white stripes of varying thicknesses. To me, it reflects both the power of the office by catching your eye and subconsciously reflecting the American flag.
Clinton Oval OfficeHis office was effectively recreated for the television drama The West Wing, which was written as an alternate history to the Clinton presidency. What if, it posits, the president were intelligent like Clinton but had a better moral compass? It's a great show, which, while (according to former White House staffers) not being entirely accurate on the White House layout or the way policy is done, is an excellent portrayal of the energy and the 'mood' that an administration exudes.
George W. Bush, as mentioned above, had the Reagan rug pulled out of storage very soon after he took office. During his tenure, the Oval Office floor was redone (in a beautiful light/dark alternating wood pattern), and his new decorations were put in. They were less intense than the Clinton colors, though I must admit his 'sun rays' rug was an incredible touch. He gets the silver medal in Josh's contest.
Bush meeting with advisers in 2001
The Obama Oval Office
One thing is sure: as long as there is a presidency, there will now be an Oval Office. Our nation's psyche is attached to it. Were something terrible to happen to the White House and the Oval be destroyed, it would be immediately rebuilt. It stands for the Office of the President more than any individual ever could.
Almost all pictures courtesy of the White House Museum (check them out!)