Former president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, on Wednesday made their first official visit to the White House since leaving in 2017 to see their official portraits unveiled.
It’s a tradition started in 1978 by Jimmy Carter that was broken when Donald Trump refused to host his predecessor. But on Wednesday in the East Room, President Joe Biden rolled out the welcome mat, calling Barack Obama one of the most “consequential presidents in history.”
“You both generated hope for millions of people who were left behind for so long, and it matters,” Biden said. “You both did it with such grace and such class. You dreamed big and secured lasting wins for the American people, helping lift their burden with a blessing of hope.”
Barack Obama thanked Sharon Sprung, the artist who painted Michelle in a blue dress as she’s seated on a sofa in the Red Room, for capturing everything he loves about his wife, including her “grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine.”
Sprung was also shown appreciation for holding on to the portrait for so long. In addition to Trump’s break with tradition, the pandemic prevented a make-up ceremony shortly after Biden took office, keeping the portraits under wraps until now.
Barack Obama then thanked Robert McCurdy for his photorealistic portrait, saying he wanted the unvarnished truth to come through.
“You’ll note that he refused to hide any of my gray hairs, refused my request to make my ears smaller,” he told the crowd.
Both portraits were painted based on photographs taken by the artists, who explained their processes and points of view in a video posted on YouTube.
Michelle Obama also reflected on what it means to have her portrait hanging in the White House for decades to come.
“I do recognize why moments like these are important, why all of this is absolutely necessary,” the former first lady said. “Traditions like this matter, not just for those of us who hold these positions, but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy.
“A girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She was never supposed to live in this house and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.”