Monday, October 3, 2022

Michelle Obama’s broad-brush remarks at portrait unveiling touch on Trump

In her first White House visit since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, Michelle Obama spoke to the importance of honoring long-held traditions — including upholding a democracy — during the historic unveiling of the official Obama portraits, a custom that had been on hold during the Trump administration.

I never could have imagined that any of this will be part of my story,” the former first lady said during some of the most memorable remarks of Wednesday’s gathering. “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,” she added.

Dignitaries joined alumni of the Obama administration to witness the unveiling of the former president’s image painted by Robert McCurdy and a portrait of Michelle Obama painted by Sharon Sprung.

What to know about today’s unveiling

Official White House portraits of presidents and their wives are usually unveiled by their successors in the earlier years of their presidencies. At times, the White House ceremony can be an opportunity for a president to honor a predecessor from their own party with whom they’ve had a long relationship. In other situations, the ceremony is a much celebrated moment of bipartisan unity between presidents of opposing parties who find camaraderie in having the shared experience of being the leader of the free world.

But this ritual didn’t take place during the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump, a frequent critic of his predecessor, did not schedule a ceremony to honor the Obamas during his four years in office. And since leaving the White House, he has continued his criticisms of Barack Obama. More significantly, he has spent much of his post-presidency falsely claiming that he won the 2020 election and that his democratically elected successor is wrongly occupying the Oval Office.

Michelle Obama used her moment from the podium to remind listeners of just how presidents are elected and how they ought to leave the White House — a thinly veiled swipe at Trump and those who continue to support his false claims.

“The people, they make their voices heard with their vote,” she said. “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.”

Obama, the only Black first lady in American history, spoke of the rarity of the occasion, given her relatively humble upbringing in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago.

“For me, this day is not just about what has happened,” she said. “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.”

“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,” Obama added. “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.”

Obama shared her hope and confidence in America’s ability to continue to be the home of possibility despite the ever-present cultural battles about the future direction of the country.

“As much as some folks might want us to believe that that story has lost some of its shine, that vision 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,” she said.

“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.”

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