WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) – Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama finally got their official White House portraits on Wednesday after four years of being snubbed by Donald Trump, in an emotional ceremony that also coincided with a rousing defense of American democracy.
The paintings, destined to hang alongside those of generations of previous first couples in the White House, were unveiled by the Obamas themselves.
A deafening cheer echoed through the crowded East Room as they pulled up the plain blue cloths that covered the artwork.
Obama, the country’s first black president, was portrayed by Robert McCurdy, straight-eyed, hands in pockets, his dark suit contrasting against a stunningly white background, and shadows falling over half his face.
Painted by Sharon Sprung, Michelle posed in a light blue dress on a red sofa.
Obama joked that McCurdy’s signature precision and sharp lines meant he “refused to hide any of my gray hairs,” but said the style’s directness counteracted the tendency for presidents to be “often airbrushed” and ” gain mythic status, especially after you’ve gone and people forget all the stuff they didn’t like.”
The cheers came during President Joe Biden’s speech to open the event and the volume continued to rise as the Obamas took the podium.
Michelle Obama entered downright political territory with a powerful homage to US democracy and thinly veiled criticism of Trump.
“Traditions like this are important,” she said, describing the custom portraits as part of the passing of the torch between successive, even opposing, governments.
“We’re holding an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transfer of power,” she said, in a pointed reminder of how Trump refused to accept his defeat by Biden in 2020, stymied the new administration’s preparations — and then failed to to invite the Obamas to unveil their official portraits.
Michelle Obama silenced the room when she noted that growing up as a black girl in Chicago, she assumed “that she should never be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy or any other famous — always white — first ladies.”
“Too often people in this country feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in,” she said.
“What we’re seeing is a reminder that in this country there’s a place for everyone” where “we can both end up on a wall in the most famous address on earth.”
“Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences,” she said.
“We love you,” a man shouted in the crowd, triggering even more cheers.
– contempt –
Past Presidents and First Ladies typically had their portraits hung in the halls and corridors of the White House after ceremonies hosted by successors. Democrat Obama, for example, hosted George W. Bush, a Republican, and his wife Laura Bush at the 2012 portrait unveiling.
However, Trump declined to invite the Obamas – amid undisguised contempt between both leaders after the Republican’s shock election victory in 2016 – and the tradition stalled.
The norm-shattering Trump even reportedly ordered portraits of Bush and his predecessor Bill Clinton to be removed from the walls of the Grand Foyer and preserved.
But a portrait of Hillary Clinton, the former first lady who defeated Trump in his presidential campaign, remained visible in a lower corridor during his tumultuous 2017-2021 tenure.
As for Trump, the Biden administration says it has no direct say over whether or when his own portrait could be hung. It’s not clear if the ex-president, who now finds himself in grave legal jeopardy following the discovery of top-secret documents brought from the White House to his Florida estate, has even commissioned an official painting.
– Mutual Praise –
Biden, who served as vice president during Obama’s two terms, praised his former boss and recalled her first tenure after the 2008 financial crisis.
“We trusted him, all of you in this room. We believed in him, we counted on him. And I still do,” Biden said.
Obama returned the compliments, telling Biden, “I was even luckier to work day and night for eight years with a man who became a true partner and a true friend.”
“Joe, America is lucky to have you as President now,” he said.
Discussing his own rise to the top post with Trump’s defeat in 2020, Biden said “nothing could have prepared me better” than working with Obama.
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© Agence France-Presse