Barack and Michelle Obama on Wednesday returned to the White House for the first time together since leaving office for the unveiling of their official portraits, the first ceremony of its kind in 10 years.

The event was a reunion of sorts, hosted by President Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president for eight years. 

“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” he began Wednesday.

“For eight years, we grew to be a family,” Biden said. “I imagine there may have been other relationships like this — president and vice president, but I can't think — none comes to mind.”

Former President Barack Obama looks at President Joe Biden as first lady Jill Biden speaks during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Obama's unveiled their official White House portraits during the ceremony. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)


The two couples had lunch together Wednesday, too, the former first lady said. Obama hosted Biden for a weekly lunch during the years he was president. 

The Obamas’ portrait unveiling was delayed after former president Donald Trump declined to invite them back to the White House, which presidents usually do to recognize their predecessors. The tradition of the unveiling ceremony goes back to 1978, when Jimmy Carter hosted Gerald and Betty Ford.

In the room for the event Wednesday were dozens of former Obama-Biden staffers, some of whom now work for the current administration. The Obamas praised the staff for making them feel at home for eight years.

“We miss you so much,” Mrs. Obama said. “The best part of this house was you all.”

President Obama’s portrait was painted by Robert McCurdy, who is known for his photograph-like paintings on a stark background. Michelle Obama’s colorful likeness was captured by Sharon Sprung, whom the former first lady said she felt connected to for “your essence, your soul, the way you saw me.”


The official White House portraits of former president Barack Obama, painted by Robert McCurdy, and former first lady Michelle Obama, painted by Sharon Sprung. (Photos courtesy of the White House Historical Association)


President Obama joked that not only did McCurdy not cover up his gray hairs or make his ears look smaller, but “he also talked me out of wearing a tan suit,” something he was ridiculed for wearing in 2014.

And he praised — and teased — about his wife’s portrait: “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 first Black Americans to hold the positions of president and first lady, both Barack and Michelle Obama talked about how they hope their portraits are symbols of what was — and is — possible.

“I hope [future generations] leave with a deeper understanding that if we could make it here, maybe they can, too. They can do remarkable things, too.”

Mrs. Obama said it was still “a bit odd” for her to walk the halls of the White House as a Black woman from humble beginnings. 

“This day is not just about what has happened. It's also about what could happen,” she said. “Because a girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolly Madison. She was never supposed to live in his house and she definitely wasn't supposed to serve as first lady.”

Her mother, Marian Robinson, was in the audience Wednesday.

The former first lady also made a clear reference to former president Trump, who still hasn’t conceded the 2020 election.

“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,” she said.

“And once our time is up, we move on,” she added.

President Biden praised Obama for his eight years in office.

“With Barack as our president we got up everyday and went to work full of hope, for real, full of purpose, and excited about the possibility before us,” he said. “There are a few people I've ever known with more integrity, decency and moral courage than Barack Obama.”

“Nothing could have prepared me better or more to become President of the United States than being at your side for eight years,” he added.

The Obamas’ portraits will hang in the halls of the White House for visitors to see, alongside George W. Bush and Laura Bush, the Clintons, and dozens of others throughout the rooms of the presidential campus.  

“It has to be special for a former president and first lady to come back and see their portraits revealed … joining this gallery of portraits that are in the White House, portraits that they walked by every single day of their presidency,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association. 

“And now, there they are among those, and they become perpetual.”

Looking ahead, the question becomes whether President Biden will invite Donald Trump, who broke with norms once again when he didn’t host the Bidens during the White House transition.

“I would hope that the Bidens would continue the tradition of inviting the former president to come back,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Whether he would? I sort of doubt that Trump would.” 

“But on the other hand, it would make him look presidential and make him part of the history of the White House and the presidency,” she added.