Michelle Obama seizes the moment at White House portrait unveiling

Washington DC - Historically, former presidents and first ladies return to the White House during their successor's term for the official unveiling of their portraits.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama poses next to her official White House portrait, painted by Sharon Sprung.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama poses next to her official White House portrait, painted by Sharon Sprung.  © REUTERS

That didn't happen over President Donald Trump's four years in office. So on Wednesday, President Joe Biden welcomed the Obamas back to their former home for a ceremony that was in many ways a light-hearted, happy reunion.

But after Biden and Obama spoke, trading the usual self-deprecating jokes and praise, former first lady Michelle Obama stepped to the presidential lectern in the East Room and delivered a stirring reflection on the ceremony's meaning and the state of a country in turmoil.

Wearing a dramatic fuchsia and red gown with her hair in braids, Obama reflected on her humble childhood on Chicago's South Side and the unlikeliness of someone like herself winding up with their portrait hanging in the White House.

"Even if it's all still a bit awkward for me, I do recognize why moments like these are important, why all of this is absolutely necessary," she said. "Traditions like this matter, not just for those of us who hold these positions, but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy."

Michelle Obama gives stirring speech at unveiling ceremony

Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend the unveiling of their official White House portraits.
Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend the unveiling of their official White House portraits.  © REUTERS

The very mention of democracy seemed freighted with meaning. Ss she continued, describing America's peaceful transition of power, long taken for granted until Trump's brazen attempts to retain the presidency after losing the 2020 election, it was crystal clear whom she was talking about even though she never once mentioned his name.

"You see, the people, they make their voices heard with their vote," she went on. "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 us up, we move on; and all that remains in this hallowed place is 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."

Never fully comfortable in the public eye, Michelle Obama has made few public appearances since leaving the White House nearly six years ago, but her words left the room full of friends and former aides silent as she went on.

"So for me, this day is not just about what has happened. It's also about what could happen. Because a girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolly Madison. She was never supposed to live in this house, and she definitely wasn't supposed to serve as first lady."

"But I've always wondered where does that 'supposed to' come from? Who determines it? And too often in this country, people feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in, that they have to make a lot of money or come from a certain group or class or faith in order to matter. 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 is a place for everyone in this country."

"That is what this country is about," Obama continued. "It's not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It's a place where everyone should have a fair shot."

Michelle Obama praises the artist behind her portrait

Artist Sharon Sprung, who painted the official White House portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, attends its unveiling ceremony.
Artist Sharon Sprung, who painted the official White House portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, attends its unveiling ceremony.  © REUTERS

Although Obama has long made clear she has no interest in ever seeking the presidency herself, her words and her story can sound like those of a potential candidate. Pollsters continue to examine her popularity: a recent survey showed her as a top 2024 candidate in the event that Biden opted not to seek a second term.

Michelle Obama also praised the artist who painted her portrait, Sharon Sprung, noting that she is joining "a small but mighty group" of women artists who have done official White House portraits.

"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," she said.

"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 share is so much bigger than what we don't."

"Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences, and this little girl from the South Side is blessed beyond measure to have felt the truth of that fuller story."

Cover photo: REUTERS

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