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Barack and Michelle Obama unveil their White House portraits

The Obamas’ big reveal! Barack and Michelle in gushing return to the White House to unveil their portraits – and can’t help but have a dig at Trump by saying: ‘Once our time is up, we move on’

  • Michelle Obama took a veiled swipe at former President Donald Trump by talking about the ‘peaceful transition of power’ during remarks at Wednesday’s portrait unveiling 
  • The former first lady was on the verge of tears as she said ‘a girl like me – she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolly Madison’ 
  • Barack Obama joked through is remarks, talking about how the Sharon Sprung-painted portrait made his wife look ‘fine’ 
  • But Michelle Obama struck a serious tone 
  • ‘Traditions like this matter,’ she said. ‘Not just for those of us who hold these positions but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy’ 
  • Trump refused to host the portrait unveiling during his tenure – just as he refused to attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration 
  • The event was attended by friends, former staff and Michelle Obama’s mother Marian Robinson, but not daughters Sasha or Malia  

Michelle Obama took a veiled swipe at former President Donald Trump by talking about the ‘peaceful transition of power’ and democracy being stronger than our ‘divisions’ as she returned to the White House for the first time since her husband Barack’s term ended to unveil their official portraits.

The former first lady was on the verge of tears as she said ‘a girl like me – she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolly Madison’ in the ceremony Wednesday with President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden.

While the former president joked about how artist Sharon Sprung made his wife look ‘fine,’ while artist Robert McCurdy refused to make his ears look smaller, Michelle struck a serious tone. 

‘Traditions like this matter,’ she said. ‘Not just for those of us who hold these positions but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy.’ 

‘You see, the people make their voices heard with their vote. We hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Those of us lucky enough to serve work, as Barack said, as hard as we can for as long as we can, as long as the people choose to keep us here,’ she continued. 

‘And once our time is up, we move on,’ she said. ‘And all that remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts and these portraits – portraits that connect our history to the present day.’ 

The remarks were seemingly aimed at Trump – who refused to participate in both a portrait unveiling and attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration – after falsely claiming he was robbed of a second term. 

The event marks the return of a Washington tradition last held 10 years ago. 

‘Barack and Michelle, welcome home! Welcome home!’ Biden said, having packed the East Room with friends, family and former Obama staff. ‘Some of whom were foolish enough to come work with me,’ Biden noted.  

Barack and Michelle Obama returned to the White House on Wednesday and unveiled their official portraits, which will adorn the walls of the executive mansion

Michelle Obama’s (right) remarks struck a serious tone at Wednesday’s portrait unveiling as she noted ‘once our time is up, we move on,’ and talked about how traditions like the portrait unveiling and inauguration – things that former President Donald Trump skipped – were important 

Former President Barack Obama said it was ‘good to be back’ making remarks at the White House Wednesday 

Former President Barack Obama’s portrait was painted by Robert McCurdy, while Michelle Obama’s was by Sharon Sprung

Sasha and Malia didn’t attend Wednesday’s affair, but Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, was seated front-and-center. 

‘It’s good to see you again, mom,’ Biden said. 

Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, spoke about how he still counted on his former boss now that he had his job. 

‘With Barack as our president, we got up everday full of hope – for real – full of purpose, and excited about the possibility before us,’ Biden said. ‘There are few people I’ve ever known with more integrity, decency and moral courage than Barack Obama.’ 

‘Mr. President, nothing could have prepared me better or more to become president of the United States than to be at your side for eight years,’ Biden added. 

Biden heralded Obama for getting the Affordable Care Act passed, for saving the American auto industry and for actions he took to protect the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the US as kids.

He also told more personal stories, like thanking Obama for giving his son Beau’s eulogy. 

‘You know, we trusted him – all of you in this room – we believed in him and we counted on him. And I still do, and I still do,’ Biden said. ‘Mr. President, that’s why the country elected you twice, that’s why you’ll be considered one of the most consequential presidents in our history. Along with one of the most consequential first ladies.’  

Turning to Michelle Obama, Biden whispered: ‘You know, Michelle, he knows, we all know, he couldn’t have done it without you.’  

‘It is great to be back,’ President Obama said once he and Michelle Obama lifted the blue coverings to show off the paintings by artists Robert McCurdy, whose photo-realistic style was used for Barack, and Sharon Sprung, who painted Michelle in a flowing blue ballgown seated on a red couch. 

‘Thank you for letting us invite a few friends to the White House, we will try not to tear up the place,’ the ex-president said to laughs. 

‘Someone once said that if you’re looking for a friend in Washington, get a dog,’ Obama said. ‘Our family was lucky enough to have two wonderful dogs. And I was even luckier to have a chance to spend eight years – working day and night – with a man who became a true partner and a true friend.’ 

‘Joe, it is now America’s good fortune to have you as president,’ Obama added. 

Obama said the country was in a better place since Biden took office. 

‘To all the former Obama-Biden staffers who are here in person, some of you are watching at home – thank you for being a part of this,’ Obama said. ‘When people ask me what I miss most about the White House years, it is not Air Force One that I talk about – though I miss Air Force One,’ Obama said getting big laughs from the crowd.

‘It’s the chance that I had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of you,’ the former president said. ‘To have a chance to witness so many talented, selfless, idealistic, good people working tirelessly every day to make the world better.’ 

Obama called it a ‘special joy’ to see what his White House staff has done since. 

‘And I’m especially glad to see so many of you serving President Biden as well as you served me,’ Obama said. ‘Although now some of you, let’s face it, you were kids back then – are now in charge and running the show, which is a little shocking and may also explain some of the grey hairs I’m seeing on some of you.’ 

Obama also said he was thrilled to see some of his staff had started families. 

‘I am a little disappointed that I haven’t heard of anyone naming a kid Barack yet, or Michelle, but there is still time,’ the former president said. 

Friends and former staff went to the White House Wednesday to see the Obamas unveil their White House portraits

President Joe Biden (center right) and first lady Jill Biden (right) welcome Michelle Obama (left) and former President Barack Obama (center left) on the South Lawn 

(From left) Former first lady Michelle Obama, former President Barack Obama, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden pose for a photo in the White House before the portrait ceremony Wednesday 

The portraits unveiled Wednesday are different from the ones in the National Portrait Gallery, which were revealed in February 2018 and are part of the Smithsonian Museum collection.

Obama noted that ‘as far as I can tell no one in my family tree had ever sat for a portrait before.’ 

‘I certainly had not. And now all of the sudden we’ve done it twice,’ he said. 

The ex-president spoke about how it was important to find the right artists to paint them. 

‘I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle. Her grace, her intelligence and the fact that she’s fine,’ Obama said, earning screams and applause from the crowd. ‘She is. Her portrait is stunning,’ he said after the cheers quieted down. 

‘And I wanted to thank Robert McCurdy, for taking on a much more difficult subject,’ Obama continued. ‘And doing a fantastic job with mine.’ 

Obama noted that McCurdy is known for his portraits of public figures including the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Muhummad Ali. 

‘But what I love about Robert’s work is that he paints people exactly the way they are – for better or worse – he captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease on your shirt. You’ll note that he refused to hide any of my grey hairs, refused my request to make my ears smaller.’

‘He also talked me out of wearing a tan suit, by the way,’ Obama said to laughter. 

As president, Obama was mocked for once sporting a tan ensemble in the summer. 

Obama said McCurdy’s realistic portrait style appealed to him because ‘presidents so often get airbrushed they even take on a mythical status – especially after you’ve gone and people forget all the stuff they didn’t like about you.’ 

‘President and first ladies are human beings like everyone else. We have our gifts, we have our flaws, you’ve all experienced mine – we have good days and bad days. We feel the same joy and sadness, frustration and hope. And while it takes a certain amount of self-confidence to be president, there are nights where we lie awake wondering if this or that decision was a right one.’ 

Obama said he always viewed the presidency like a ‘relay race.’ 

‘You take the baton from someone, you run your leg as hard and as well as you can and then you hand it off to someone else,’ he said, alluding – like his wife – to a peaceful transition of power. 

Michelle Obama said the portraits showed what was possible.

‘But what we’re looking at today, a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom, what we are seeing is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country,’ she said.  

After her remarks, Michelle Obama welcomed Jill Biden to the podium.  

Dr. Biden laughed from onstage when everyone in the audience gave her a standing ovation – except her husband, the president. 

‘Joe, honestly, everybody stood but Joe,’ she remarked and then spoke about the friendship with Michelle that she ‘treasure[d].’  

The unveiling comes after a 10-year gap in the tradition, after former President Donald Trump refused to hold the ceremony during his tenure 

President Joe Biden addresses a crowd filled with Obama alumni at the White House Wednesday for the former first couple’s portrait unveiling 

Former President Barack Obama (right) puts his hand on the back of President Joe Biden (left) who served as his vice president 

Former President Barack Obama enters the East Room alongside President Joe Biden, followed by former first lady Michelle Obama and first lady Jill Biden

Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and second gentleman Doug Emhoff (right) arrive at the Obamas’ portrait unveiling at the White House Wednesday 

Donald Trump didn’t host the Obamas for their portrait unveiling despite the traditioni of a president welcoming his predecessor’s painting; Pictured: Donald Trump (centre) is applauded by former President Barack Obama (left), former Vice President Joe Biden (top) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (right) during Trump’s inauguration ceremonies at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017

It is customary for a president to host his predecessor and their spouse for the unveiling of the portraits. 

Trump notably didn’t host the Obamas, given the hostility felt between the two men. Trump accused Obama of spying on his presidential campaign. Obama made fun of Trump during a speech at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

It wasn’t Barack Obama’s first time back to the White House, however. 

He was there in April to talk about his signature healthcare law Obamacare. But Wednesday will mark Michelle Obama’s first time back in the building since the Trumps arrived in January 2017. 

Wednesday’s paintings are now part of the White House collection and will join the large, formal portraits of other presidents and first ladies that hang on the walls, in the hallways and in various rooms throughout the White House.

Traditionally, the two latest presidential portraits are placed in the Cross Hall of the White House: George W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s hang there now. Trump moved them when he was in office but Biden put them back.

However, with the new Obama portrait, Clinton’s will likely be relocated.  

White House Historical Association president Stewart McLaurin said there was no prescribed process for presidential portraits. 

‘It’s really up to the current president in the White House and the former president that is portrayed in the portrait to determine the right moment, but there is no set timeline,’ he told Reuters.

The WHHA, a nonprofit organization, facilitates and funds the creation of the portraits. 

The organization is in the ‘beginning stages’ of the portrait processes for former President Trump and former first lady Melania Trump, McLaurin told CNN.

‘There’s focus on specific artists that will likely be doing their portraits,’ he noted. 

Obama hosted former president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, for their portrait unveilings in 2012 during Obama’s first term.

Now Obama will be hosted by his former vice president.

The Obamas and Bidens became close during Obama’s presidency, going through the ups and downs of their political and personal lives, including the death of Biden’s son, Beau, from cancer.

‘Over the course of their eight years together in office, a close partnership between the two men grew through the highs and lows of the job and life,’ Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters on Tuesday.

She declined to say if the Bidens would host the Trumps for their portrait unveiling.

The portrait unveiling ceremony tradition goes back decades. 

It originated as a first ladies event – with first lady Lady Bird Johnson inviting Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman to the White House, along with family and friends, for East Room ceremonies. 

The last portrait ceremony to happen at the White House was in May 2012 when President Barack Obama (left) and first lady Michelle Obama (right) invited President George W. Bush (center left) and Laura Bush (center right) to the White House 

The Roosevelt ceremony took place in February 1966. 

Former first lady Jackie Kennedy made her only return trip to the White House after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1971 to see her late husband’s portrait hung. President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon invited her for a ceremony – and she agreed to come for a private viewing.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter was the first president to play host, bringing President Gerald Ford and former first lady Betty Ford to the White House for an East Room ceremony.  

He had defeated Ford in the 1976 presidential race. 

There was no ceremony for Carter during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure – however Carter’s White House communications director Gerald Rafshoon told NBC that was likely Carter’s choice, not a snub.  

‘It would probably be out of his character to want a big ceremony in Washington that soon,’ Rafshoon told the network. ‘I would imagine he opted not to have it.’ 

President George H.W. Bush, who served as Reagan’s vice president, brought the Reagans back to the White House in November 1989. 

First ladies Barbara Bush (left) and Nancy Reagan (center left) have a giggle as they observe President Ronald Reagan’s (center right) portrait being unveiled during the tenure of President George H.W. Bush (right)  

President Bill Clinton (left) and Hillary Clinton (center left) brought in first lady Barbara Bush (center right) and President George H.W. Bush (right) to the Whtie House for a portrait unveiling ceremony in July 1995 

President George W. Bush (right) and first lady Laura Bush (center right) invited President Bill Clinton (left) and Hillary Clinton (cente left) to the White House for a portrait unveiling in June 2004 

Melania Trump, Donald Trump, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on Trump’s Inauguration Day at the US Capitol 

President Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 election, held a ceremony for his predecessor in July 1995 that both Bush and first lady Barbara Bush attended. 

With the White House swinging back to Republican rule after the 2000 election, President George W. Bush had the Clintons come visit in June 2004. 

The final modern ceremony took place in 2012, with the Obamas invitation to George W. and Laura Bush for the unveiling.

‘We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences,’ Obama said at the time.

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