Washington (AFP) – Former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama finally got their official White House portraits Wednesday, after four years of being snubbed by Donald Trump, in an emotional ceremony doubling as 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.
Deafening cheers sounded through the packed East Room as they pulled up the plain blue cloths covering the art works.
Obama, the country's first Black president, was depicted by Robert McCurdy looking straight out, hands in pockets, his dark suit contrasting against a startlingly white background, and shadow falling over half of his face.
Michelle, who was painted by Sharon Sprung, posed in a light blue gown, seated on a red sofa.
Obama joked that McCurdy's signature precision and sharp lines meant he “refused to hide any of my grey hairs,” but said the directness of the style countered the tendency where presidents “often get airbrushed,” getting “mythical status, especially after you've gone and people forget all the stuff they didn't like.”
The cheers kept coming during President Joe Biden's speech kicking off the event and the volume rose further when the Obamas took the podium.
Michelle Obama veered into distinctly political territory with a powerful homage to US democracy and barely disguised criticism of Trump.
“Traditions like this matter,” she said, describing the portraits custom as part of the passing of the torch between successive, even opposing administrations.
“We hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” she said in a barbed reminder of the way Trump refused to accept his 2020 defeat by Biden, stymied the incoming government's preparations — then failed to invite the Obamas to unveil their official portraits.
Michelle Obama reduced the room to silence with her observation that growing up as a Black girl in Chicago she'd assumed “she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy” or other famous — always white — first ladies.
“Too often in this country, people feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in,” she said.
“What we are seeing is a reminder that there's a place for everyone in this country,” where “the two of us can end up on a wall in the most famous address in the world.”
“Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences,” she said.
“We love you,” a man in the crowd called out, prompting more cheers.
Past presidents and first ladies have typically had their portraits hung in White House halls and corridors after ceremonies hosted by successors. Democrat Obama, for example, hosted George W. Bush, a Republican, and his wife Laura Bush at portrait unveilings in 2012.
However, Trump declined to invite the Obamas — amid undisguised contempt between both leaders in the wake of the Republican's shock 2016 election win — and the tradition ground to a halt.
The norm-shredding Trump even reportedly ordered portraits of Bush and his predecessor Bill Clinton to be taken down from the walls of the Grand Foyer and put in storage.
But a portrait of Hillary Clinton, the former first lady whom Trump had defeated in his presidential campaign, remained visible in a lower corridor through his tempestuous 2017-2021 term.
As for Trump, the Biden administration says it has no direct say on whether or when his own portrait could be hung up. It is not clear whether the ex-president, now in deep legal peril after the discovery of top-secret documents taken from the White House to his Florida estate, has even commissioned an official painting.
Biden, who served as vice president throughout Obama's two terms, poured praise on his former boss, recalling how they first took office in the wake of 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 have a chance to spend eight years working day and night with a man who became a true partner and a true friend.”
“Joe, it is now America's good fortune to have you as president,” he said.
Talking of his own rise to the top job with defeat of Trump in 2020, Biden said “nothing could have prepared me more” for the presidency than working alongside Obama.