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Obamas unveil their portraits, and it feels like a reunion

Barack and Michelle Obama, joined by dozens of former staffers, return to the White House for a celebratory moment

Former president Barack Obama kisses former first lady Michelle Obama after they unveil their official portraits in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 7. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

They were there to witness a portrait unveiling, but it felt like a college reunion.

People wandered around the campus, admiring their old haunts. Friends, many kept apart during the pandemic, embraced and posed for photos. Alcohol was served.

When former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama returned to the White House on Wednesday for the official unveiling of their portraits, they brought with them dozens of former staffers who relished the chance to reminisce about their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Thanks for letting us invite a few friends to the White House,” Obama said to the Bidens. “We will try not to tear up the place.”

The ceremony, years delayed because President Donald Trump declined to host the traditional event for his predecessor, was punctuated by the reveal of the two portraits — a hyper-realistic painting of the former president standing against a white backdrop and a painting of the former first lady, seated on a sofa in the Red Room, in a light blue dress.

The portraits were notably more traditional than the paintings of the Obamas unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in 2018, in keeping with the more stately venue. The earlier paintings were more whimsical, including an image of the former president seeming to float amid a sea of leaves.

New images more traditional than gallery portraits

The jovial event was mostly filled with praise (“There are a few people I’ve ever known with more integrity, decency and moral courage than Barack Obama,” President Biden said) and jokes (Obama said he is still waiting for a former staffer to name their child Barack).

“We trusted him, all of you in this room,” Biden said of the man who elevated him to the vice presidency. “We believed in him. We counted on him — and I still do. Mr. President, that’s why the country elected you twice. It’s why you’ll be considered one of the most consequential presidents in our history.”

In her remarks, Michelle Obama took a more somber tone, underscoring that traditions play a central role in a democracy, a clear swipe at Trump and the norms he has eschewed.

“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.”

She continued with veiled criticisms of Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 election and his repeated false claims that he was the real winner.

“Once our time is up, we move on,” the former first lady said about occupants of the White House, “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.”

What to know about today's unveiling

In his remarks, Barack Obama also reflected on presidential succession and his hope that the portraits convey to future generations that “if we could make it here, maybe they can, too.”

He compared the presidency to 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, knowing that your work will be incomplete,” Obama said. “The portraits hanging in the White House chronicle the runners in that race, each of us tasked with trying to bring the country we love closer to its highest aspirations.”

The event also took on a more serious mood as several participants noted that because Obama was the first Black president, this was the first time an African American couple was honored with portraits in the presidential mansion, joining a string that goes back to a famed painting of George Washington.

Obama praised the artist who painted his portrait, explaining why he chose Robert McCurdy, who is known for creating portraits that look like photographs.

“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,” he said. “But what you realize when you’re sitting behind that desk — and what I want people to remember about Michelle and me — is that presidents and first ladies are human beings like everyone else.”

He also complimented the artist who painted his wife.

“I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle — her grace, her intelligence and the fact that she’s fine,” he said.

Michelle Obama blushed, laughing as she stood next to him, and then opened her remarks by thanking her husband for “such spicy remarks.” The former president laughed, threw up his hands and said, “I’m not running again.”

Barack Obama and Biden have a complex relationship but genuine friendship, aides say. When Obama chose the senator from Delaware as his running mate in 2008, he made Biden a truly national figure and arguably set him on the path to the presidency after two failed efforts. Biden, meanwhile, had the experience and gravitas to bolster the campaign of a youthful politician who spent less than four years in the Senate.

The artists, whose identity was kept secret along with the portraits until Wednesday, joined the Obamas at the White House. By the end of the day, Barack Obama’s portrait was already hanging in the Grand Foyer of the White House, where the portraits of other recent presidents are traditionally displayed, and Michelle Obama’s portrait was hanging on the ground floor of the building, along with other recent first ladies.

The East Room event also featured a who’s who of the Obama years. Valerie Jarrett, the longtime senior adviser to the Obamas, sat in the front row near Michelle Obama’s mother. Behind them was a row of former Cabinet officials: Eric Holder, the former attorney general; Tom Perez, the former labor secretary; Shaun Donovan, who ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Former top Obama aides including David Axelrod, Cody Keenan and Jennifer Palmieri were in attendance, as were a slew of current top White House officials who served in both administrations.

“I’m honored to host you and so many friends who have been part of this incredible journey,” Biden said to Obama. “It includes members of your staff, some of whom were foolish enough to come work with me.”

Before Trump skipped a ceremony for Obama, nearly every sitting president had hosted a portrait unveiling event for his immediate predecessor, regardless of party, since Jimmy Carter invited Gerald Ford back to the White House in 1978.

Meanwhile, it remains unlikely Biden will host an event for Trump, who has repeatedly ridiculed him and questioned his legitimacy, while Biden has excoriated Trump and his “MAGA Republicans” as a threat to democracy. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, deferred questions about a ceremony for Trump to the White House Historical Association.

Stewart McLaurin, the president of that association, said there is no “prescribed process” for portrait unveilings.

“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,” McLaurin said in a statement.