Obamas return to White House as Biden helps unveil their official portraits

WASHINGTON — “I miss Air Force One,” former President Barack Obama jokingly confessed on Wednesday, as his former vice president — President Biden — unveiled the official White House portraits of the 44th president and his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama. It was a festive occasion during a fraught time in Washington, a reunion that recalled the sense of promise that accompanied the nation’s first Black president into office.

“Barack and Michelle, welcome home," Biden said in a packed East Room, where attendees included longtime Obama political advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, as well as former cabinet members.

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama
Former President Barack Obama with former first lady Michelle Obama during the unveiling on Wednesday of their official White House portraits, painted by Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung, respectively. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

While the former president took a somewhat lighthearted approach to the ceremony, Michelle Obama discussed the historic significance of the event. “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 this house, and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady,” Michelle Obama, who grew up in a working-class household on the South Side of Chicago, said.

“This day isn’t about me or Barack,” she said some moments later. “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 the country.”

Michelle Obama with Barack Obama
The Obamas at the White House on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Obama praised Brooklyn-based painter Sharon Sprung for "capturing everything I love about Michelle. Her grace, her intelligence—and the fact that she is fine,” the former president said to laughter.

The former president's portrait was executed by Robert McCurdy.

As is custom, the portraits were commissioned by the White House Historical Association. The National Gallery also has portraits of the Obamas, painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.

Former President Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Custom would have also compelled Obama’s successor in the White House, Donald Trump, to perform the unveiling. He did not hold such a ceremony, thus leading to the Biden-Obama reunion.

Given the rivalries between the overlapping Obama and Biden camps, that reunion came with underlying tension about legacy, influence and achievement. It was a moment of glory in a presidency of high aspirations, but also of a multitude of frustrations.

"You know, we trusted him—all of you in this room—we believed in him and we counted on him," Biden said of his former boss. "And I still do."