Former first lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday spoke to the larger significance of holding a ceremony to unveil her and former President Barack Obama’s official White House portraits, stressing the importance of upholding democratic traditions, including those surrounding the peaceful transfer of power between leaders.
“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.”
Obama added, “The people, they 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, and once our time is up we move on and all that remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts and these portraits. Portraits that connect our history to the present day. Portraits that hang here as history continues to be made.”
Her comments come as former President Donald Trump continues to contest the results of the 2020 election. Trump and former first lady Melania Trump did not attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration and did not invite the Bidens to the White House before Biden was sworn in, which was a significant break in transfer-of-power rituals. The Obamas attended Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and hosted them for tea before the ceremony at the US Capitol.
Ceremonies for the unveiling of official White House portraits are typically hosted by a former president’s immediate successor. But Trump did not hold a ceremony for the Obama portraits while he was in office.
Michelle Obama spoke to the historic significance of having portraits of the first Black president and first lady hanging in the White House and said it was “a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country.”
“If the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then, again, it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can too,” she said. “That is what this country is about. It’s not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It’s a place where everyone should have a fair shot.”
The former first lady said, “For me this day isn’t about me or Barack. It’s not even about these beautiful paintings. It’s about telling that fuller story, a story that includes every single American in every single corner of the country so our kids and grandkids can see something more for themselves.”
“And as much as some folks might want us to believe that that story has lost some of its shine, that division and discrimination and everything else might have dimmed its light, I still know deep in my heart that what we share, as my husband continues to say, is so much bigger than what we don’t,” Obama said. “Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences.”
Michelle Obama’s portrait was painted by Sharon Sprung and Barack Obama’s image was painted by Robert McCurdy. The former first lady’s portrait depicts her in a blue dress seated on a sofa in the Red Room of the White House. The photorealistic image of the former President shows him dressed in a black suit with a gray tie and is painted against a minimal white backdrop. The pieces will hang inside the White House for decades to come.