Barack and Michelle Obama return to White House for a nostalgic and emotional portrait unveiling

The former president and first lady's homecoming was one of nostalgia and sentimental reflections on their historic eight years inside the White House.

Portraits of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will now be hung in the White House “forever” as President Joe Biden noted during Wednesday’s historic unveiling. 

It was a day of homecoming and nostalgia as the Obamas reflected on their eight years inside the White House. Mr. Obama’s portrait – which looks more like a photograph of America’s first Black president – was painted by Robert McCurdy; while Mrs. Obama’s was painted by artist Sharon Sprung.

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama unveil their official White House portraits. (Photo: Cheriss May for theGrio)

Obama comically thanked Sprung for capturing Mrs. Obama’s “grace,” “intelligence” and “the fact that she’s fine.” Mrs. Obama, in turn, thanked her husband for his “spicy remarks.” But the Obamas’ homecoming was also one filled with sentimental feelings of gratitude expressed by America’s historic first Black “first couple.”

Both the former president and first lady thanked the room filled with former Obama White House staffers and officials – some of whom now work for the Biden-Harris administration – reflecting on the policy and legislative work of their historic administration. Mrs. Obama was especially emotional as she talked about the improbable societal outcome that she, once a Black girl raised on the southside of Chicago, would have a portrait of her hanging on the hallowed walls of the White House.

“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,” said Mrs. Obama.

She also challenged the notion that says she, a Black woman, and President Obama, a biracial Black man, reaching the heights of American politics shouldn’t be the norm. 

“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,” Mrs. Obama explained. 

She continued, “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’s a place for everyone in this country.”

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama unveil their official White House portraits. (Photo: Cheriss May for theGrio)

The former first lady said she was “blessed beyond measure.” As someone from the crowd cut into Mrs. Obama’s remarks to say, “we love you, Michelle,” the room erupted in applause as former President Obama looked on with pride.

Presidential portraits are important historical symbols, says Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “Presidential portraits symbolize both the occupant, but it symbolizes that it’s part of a long history,” Bunch told theGrio. “And suddenly to see that long history integrated, brought in by a person of color, who basically helped to transform the nation is unbelievably moving.”

Bunch was one of many who worked hard to get their coveted seat inside the East Room to witness the unveiling of the two pieces of both American and Black history. “I’ve juggled everything so I could be there because this, to me as a historian, is a historic moment,” he said.

Valerie Jarrett, a former senior advisor to President Obama and CEO of the Obama Foundation, also attended the unveiling, as did many other former cabinet secretaries and staff – including former butlers, and of course, Mrs. Obama’s mother Marian Robinson.

Jarrett, considered the best friend of the Obamas, had a front-row view. “The portrait unveiling of President and Mrs. Obama is the perfect event for me to return to the White House for the first time since January 2020,” Jarrett told theGrio. She said the portraits are “permanent symbols of their extraordinary legacy through countless contributions to our country.” 

President Barack Obama (R) hugs First Lady Michelle Obama in the Red Room while Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett
In this handout provide by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) hugs First Lady Michelle Obama in the Red Room while Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett (L) smiles prior to the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) at the White House on March 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in attendance, told theGrio after the event, “it was a long overdue reunion” and “celebration of good times.” He added, “but we are also talking about the future. The foundation was laid by Barack and President [Joe] Biden is carrying it forward.”  

The unveiling of the Obamas’ White House portraits is at least four years overdue as former President Donald Trump did not make efforts to host the event. Sources told theGrio that the Obamas were equally not compelled to move on the portrait unveiling during Trump’s presidency. 

While there were congenial efforts on behalf of the Obamas in inviting the Trumps ahead of the presidential transition of power in 2016 — despite Trump launching a racist birther conspiracy that Barack Obama was not born in the United States – tensions grew harsher between the Trumps and the Obamas following Trump’s inauguration. 

Trump described President Obama as very supportive and expressed that their Oval Office meeting was positive. Things took a turn during Trump’s inauguration ceremony, where he cast a negative outlook on Obama’s presidency, describing it as “carnage,” among other statements. That framing, along with comments made throughout Trump’s presidency, did not sit well with the Obamas. 

Due to similar tensions between President Biden and Trump, who decided not to attend Biden’s inauguration, the president is not expected to host an unveiling of Trump and former first lady Melania Trump’s White House portraits.

Describing the current state of visceral, partisan divisions within today’s politics that ultimately delayed the Obamas’ White House portrait unveiling, Bunch said “the one thing history tells you is that there are moments like this and there are moments that you have to overcome.” 

He added, “I guess the question really is how will America react and will America live up to its ideals and build on the progress of the last 50 years? Or will America begin to regress? I think that’s a question that I can’t answer, but I worry about.”

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