“Every president must endure the gap between what he would like and what is possible,” President Biden said, quoting President John F. Kennedy during his opening remarks at the ceremony.
“There are few people I’ve ever known with more integrity, decency and moral courage than Barack Obama,” Biden added.
The ceremony — a beloved decades-old tradition that transcends partisan politics — took place in the East Room and was hosted by President Joe Biden and first Lady Jill Biden after an atypical gap during the Trump years.
Former President Donald Trump’s departure from protocol flew in the face of the recent tradition of sitting presidents hosting their immediate predecessors — as Bill Clinton did for George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush did for Clinton, and Obama did for the younger Bush.
As a result, the visit marks Michelle Obama’s first visit since leaving the White House in 2017, and is only Barack Obama’s second trip back after returning in April to commemorate the 12th anniversary of his signature health care law.
“It’s good to be back,” the former president said at the press conference following the unveiling.
“When people ask me what I miss most about the White House years, it is not Air Force One that I talk about, although I miss Air Force One. It’s the chance that I had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of you, to have a chance to witness so many talented, selfless, idealistic, good people working tirelessly every day to make the world better,” Barack Obama said.
“And for eight years and even longer for some of you, I drew on your energy and your dedication and your goodness. You inspired me, and I never wanted to disappoint you. And I tried to reflect the same heart and character that you displayed every day. Even during the toughest times, it was all of you that kept me going. So it’s good to be back to have a chance to see all of you and to once again say thank you,” the former president continued.
The former first lady spoke about raising her daughters at the White House as well as thanking staff for helping it feel like home.
“We were saying at lunch that the girls have lived in this house longer than they’ve lived anywhere. And so this, as odd of a home as it can be, as wonderful as it can be, it is a special place because we raised our girls here,” Michelle Obama said.
“I also want to take the time to recognize the residence staff. As Barack said, you guys made this a home. We snatched up a few of you all and took you with us, but for those of you who we couldn’t bring, we miss you so much. We miss you so much. The best part about this house was you all, so it’s so good to see you, and you all look good,” she said.
She also spoke glowingly of Robert McCurdy, who painted the former president, and Sharon Sprung, who painted the first lady.
“Portraits that connect our history to the present day. Portraits that hang here as history continues to be made. So for me, this day is not just about what has happened. It’s also about what could happen because a girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison,” Michelle Obama said.
Likewise, Barack Obama spoke highly of the artists’ work.
“I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle, her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine,” the former president said, adding, “Just saying. Her portrait is stunning.”
He also joked about the portrait by McCurdy. “He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt. You’ll note that he refused to hide any of my gray hairs. Refused my request to make my ears smaller.”
The White House portrait collection starts with George Washington. Other portraits of early presidents and first ladies often came to the White House as gifts. Since the middle of the last century, the White House Historical Association has paid for the paintings.