Back at the White: The Unveiling of Our Official Portraits
Remarks as delivered in The White House East Room with President Biden and First Lady Dr. Biden. Full event transcript is available here.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Are we ready? Yes? (Laughter.) Okay. There we go.
(The portraits are unveiled.) (Applause.)
Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you! Thank you so much.
Please, everybody have a seat. Have a seat. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Sit down, everybody. Thank you very much.
It is great to be back. President and Dr. Biden, Vice President Harris and Second Gentleman Emhoff, thank you so much for your hospitality. Thanks for letting us invite a few friends to the White House. We will try not to tear up the place.
Someone — someone once said that if you’re looking for a friend in Washington, get a dog. Our family was lucky enough to have two wonderful dogs. But 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. You have guided us through some perilous times. You’ve built on and gone beyond the work we all did together to expand healthcare, to fight climate change, to advance social justice, and to promote economic fairness.
Thanks to your decency and thanks to your strength — maybe most of all thanks to your faith in our democracy and the American people — the country is better off than when you took office, and we should all be deeply grateful for that. So, thank you so much.
To all the former Obama-Biden staffers who are here in person, some of you are watching at home, thank you for being a part of this. 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 is 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.
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.
Now, as much as I miss our work together, what’s been a special joy is to see what’s happened since because so many of you are doing amazing things, whether it’s in government, in the private sector, in academia, or non-profits.
And I’m especially glad to see so many of you serving President Biden as well as you served me — although now some of you who, let’s face it, you were kids back then, are now in charge and running the show— which is a little shocking — and may also explain some of the grey hairs I’m seeing on some of you.
But it validates what I had always hoped, which was that our time together would only be the beginning of incredibly impactful careers.
And some of you who’ve I’ve had a chance to stay in touch with, I’m thrilled to see that you’ve started families of your own. I am a little disappointed that I haven’t heard of anyone naming a kid “Barack” yet.
FIRST LADY OBAMA: Or Michelle.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Or Michelle. But there is still time.
Finally, I want to say a special thanks to the White House staff. We had a chance to see them all beforehand. You took incredible care of our family for eight years. And along the way, you became a part of it. And we have not ever forgotten the kindness that you showed us.
Now, when Michelle and I had our portraits unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery a few years back, I said that, as far as I could tell, no one in my family tree had ever sat for a portrait before. I certainly had not. And now, all of a sudden, we’ve done it twice.
But these portraits today have a special significance, because, as Joe mentioned, they will hang in the White House alongside portraits of other Presidents and First Ladies dating back to George and Martha. So, it was important to find the right people to paint them.
I want to thank Sharon Sprung for capturing everything I love about Michelle — her grace, her intelligence, and the fact that she’s fine. I’m just saying. She is. Her portrait is stunning.
And I want to thank Robert McCurdy for taking on a much more difficult subject — and doing a fantastic job with mine.
Robert is known for his paintings of public figures — Toni Morrison, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali. But what I love about Robert’s work is that he paints people exactly the way they are, for better or worse. He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt.
You’ll note that he refused to hide any of my grey hairs. Refused my request to make my ears smaller.
He also talked me out of wearing a tan suit, by the way. (Laughter and applause.) So — (laughs). (Laughter.)
His work is so precise that, at first glance, it looks like a photograph. And Robert also paints his subjects looking straight ahead, so it feels like you’re face-to-face, forming a connection.
And that appealed to me, in part because Presidents so often get airbrushed. They even take on a mythical status, especially after you’ve gone and people forget all the stuff they didn’t like about you.
But what you realize when you’re sitting behind that desk, and what I want people to remember about Michelle and me, is that Presidents and First Ladies are human beings like everyone else. We have our gifts. We have our flaws. You’ve all experienced mine. We have good days and bad days. We feel the same joy and sadness, frustration and hope.
And while it takes a certain amount of self-confidence to be President, there are nights where we lie awake wondering if this or that decision was the right one.
I’ve always described the presidency as a relay race. You take the baton from someone, you run your leg as hard and as well as you can, and then you hand it off to someone else, knowing that your work will be incomplete. The portraits hanging in the White House chronicle the runners in that race — each of us tasked with trying to bring the country we love closer to its highest aspirations.
And when future generations walk these halls and look up at these portraits, I hope they get a better, honest sense of who Michelle and I were. And I hope they leave with a deeper understanding that if we could make it here, maybe they can too; they can do remarkable things too.
Now, it is my pleasure to introduce someone who needs no introduction. Michelle was the best thing about living in the White House. And let me tell you, the pastry chefs here deliver delicious pies on request — so that is saying something.
I could not ask for a better life partner, and in my humble opinion, America could not have asked for a better First Lady.
Please give it up for Michelle Obama.
Remarks by Mrs. Obama:
FIRST LADY OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, guys. Okay, thank you, everybody.
Oh, well, let me thank my husband, first of all, for such spicy remarks.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m not running again!
FIRST LADY OBAMA: And, of course, thank you Joe and Jill, President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden. Thank you for inviting us back. This means so much to us.
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 this can be, as wonderful it can — as it can be — it is a — it is a special place because we raised our girls here. And it means so much to come back to friends and to be able to spend time talking about our girls.
And so, I am grateful to both of you for the work that you’re doing; the love that you’re showing us, our staff; and the work that you’re doing for this country. Thank you so much.
And, of course, to Vice President Harris and — I love to say this — Second Gentleman Emhoff. Let’s say it again: Second Gentleman. You’re doing a great job. Thank you for joining us today.
And I can’t go any further without, of course, acknowledging all of the amazing staff — friends. It’s — you’re more than staff. You’re friends. You’re family to us, particularly the people who have been a part of my team over the years.
I don’t have time to name everyone, thank goodness. But you all knew — know who you are, from the campaign, to the White House, to today. I would not be who I am without your passion and your faith, and all of the love that you poured into everything that we accomplished together. And it was amazing — historic.
What did Sam Kass used to say?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Unprecedented!
FIRST LADY OBAMA: Unprecedented.
You all mean the world to me. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. So, thank you. Proud of you. Proud of the work that you’ve done. Proud of what you’re doing.
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 — so good.
I’d also like to recognize Stewart McLaurin; of course, John Rogers. It’s been amazing working you all over the years.
I have to recognize Bill Allman, who has been fabulous to work with over the years.
And of course, Thelma Golden and my dear friend Michael Smith for their — we are where we are because of their comprehensive and rigorous work to identify these incredible artists.
And that brings me to our artist. Of course, Robert McCurdy, who — you know, you did a good job. (Laughter.) You did a good job.
But I got to spend a lot of time Sharon Sprung. And Sharon now joins a small but mighty group of women who’ve painted an official portrait here at the White House. (Applause.)
And I’m thrilled that this extraordinary work is going to be enshrined forever as part of our nation’s history.
But, Sharon, it was wonderful to work with you. You are a true spirit; that’s one of the reasons why we connected. Your work is phenomenal, but it was your essence, your soul, the way you saw me, the way we interacted — and it shows in this beautiful work.
So, thank you for your brilliance, your artistry, and your patience— in this process.
I remember I went to see the work in Brooklyn. And poor Sharon, because no one is supposed to know who the artists are. So, her studio is her home. And so, she had this piece in her home. You couldn’t have guests over. You were frightened that it would get out. You just wanted it out of your space. And every year, I thought about, she must be going crazy.
So, thank you. Thank you so much. Let’s give them both a round of applause. (Applause.)
Oh, believe it or not, it is still a bit odd for me to stand in this historic space, see this big, beautiful painting staring back at me. Growing up on Euclid Avenue, Mommy, I never could have imagined that any of this would be part of my story.
But even if it’s all still a bit awkward for me, I do recognize why moments like these are important, why all of this is absolutely necessary. Traditions like this matter not just for those of us who hold these positions, but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy.
You see, the people — they make their voices heard with their vote. We hold 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.
And all that remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts and these portraits — 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. She was never supposed to live in this house, and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as First Lady.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you, Michelle!
FIRST LADY OBAMA: Love you back.
But 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, that 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.
Because as Barack said, if the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then, again, it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can, too.
That is what this country is about. It’s not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It’s a place where everyone should have a fair shot, whether you’re a kid taking two buses and a train just to get to school; or a single mother who is working two jobs to put some food on the table; or an immigrant just arriving, getting your first apartment, forging a future for yourself in a place you dreamed of.
That’s why, for me, this day isn’t about me or Barack. It’s not even about these beautiful paintings. It’s about telling that fuller story — a story that includes every single American in every single corner of this country so that our kids and grandkids can see something more for themselves.
And as much as some folks might want us to believe that that story has lost some of its shine, that division and discrimination and everything else might have dimmed its light, I still know deep in my heart that what we share — as my husband continues to say — is so much bigger than what we don’t. 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 that fuller story throughout her entire life, never more so than today.
So, thank you to President Biden, to Sharon, and to all of you today for playing a part in this day and all the days that led to it.
And now, it is my privilege to introduce someone who is stepping in shoes and doing it well, someone who has devoted so much of her life to education, working to broaden the idea of whose story matters.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my friend, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.