“Traditions like this matter not only to those of us who hold these positions, but to all who participate in and watch our democracy,” she added.
Dignitaries joined former students of the Obama administration to witness the unveiling of the image of the former president painted by Robert McCurdy and a portrait of Michelle Obama painted by Sharon Sprung.
What to know about today’s reveal
Official White House portraits of presidents and their wives are usually unveiled by their successors during the early years of their presidencies. Sometimes the White House ceremony can be an opportunity for a president to honor a predecessor in his own party with whom he has a long relationship. In other situations, the ceremony is a much-celebrated moment of bipartisan unity between presidents of opposing parties who find camaraderie in the shared experience of being the leader of the free world.
But this ritual did not take place under the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump, a frequent critic of his predecessor, did not schedule a ceremony to honor the Obamas during his four years in office. And since his departure from the White House, he has not stopped criticizing Barack Obama. More importantly, he spent much of his post-presidency falsely claiming that he won the 2020 election and that his democratically elected successor was wrongly occupying the Oval Office.
Michelle Obama used her moment from the podium to remind listeners how presidents are elected and how they must leave the White House – a thinly veiled jab at Trump and those who continue to support his false claims.
“People, they make their voice heard with their vote,” she said. “We are holding 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 to something else. And all that remains in this sacred place are our good efforts.
Obama, the only black first lady in American history, spoke of the rarity of the opportunity, given her relatively modest upbringing in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side.
“For me, this day is not pretty much what happened,” she said. “It’s also about what could happen because a girl like me, she was never meant to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She was never meant to live in that house. And she certainly wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.
“But what we’re looking at today – a portrait of a biracial child with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom – what we see is a reminder that there is a place for everyone in this country,” Obama added. “Because as Barack said, if the two of us can find ourselves on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then again, it’s so important for every young child who doubts themselves to believe that he can too.”
Obama shared his hope and confidence in America’s ability to continue to be home to the possible despite pervasive cultural battles over the country’s future direction.
“Although some people would have us believe that this story has faded, that vision and discrimination and all that may have dimmed its light, I still know deep in my heart that what we share, like the my husband goes on to say, it’s so much bigger than what we’re not doing,” she said.
“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 this fuller story throughout her life.