Michelle Obama Delivers Powerful Speech on What Her History-Making White House Portrait Represents

·5 min read
Former US First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during an event to unveil her and former President Barack Obama's official White House portraits, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 7, 2022.
Former US First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during an event to unveil her and former President Barack Obama's official White House portraits, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 7, 2022.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

Michelle Obama gave a powerful speech after she and Barack Obama unveiled their official White House portraits on Wednesday.

The former first lady, 58, started her speech thanking those around the room, from President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden to the staff that work at the official residence.

"Thank you for inviting us back," she said. "This means so much to us."

"We were saying at lunch that [Malia and Sasha] have lived in this house longer than they've lived anywhere else," Michelle recalled, adding that the White House will always be a "special place" because it is where she and Barack raised their girls.

She added, "It means so much to come back to friends."

RELATED: Barack and Michelle Obama's Official White House Portraits Are Unveiled — See the Photos!

After thanking the portraits' artists, Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung, Michelle confessed it's still odd for her "stand in this historic space" and "see this big beautiful painting staring back" at her.

"Growing up on Euclid Avenue, I never could've imagined that any of this could be part of my story," she continued. "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."

Former first lady Michelle Obama stands next to her official White House portrait during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Washington. The former first lady chose artist Sharon Sprung to do her portrait.
Former first lady Michelle Obama stands next to her official White House portrait during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Washington. The former first lady chose artist Sharon Sprung to do her portrait.

Andrew Harnik/AP

"Traditions like this matter," she explained, "not just for those of us who hold these positions but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy."

Michelle continued, seemingly taking a dig at former President Donald Trump's refusal to accept defeat in 2020: "People make their voices heard with their vote. We hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power, and those of us lucky enough to serve work 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," Michelle said. "Portraits that connect our history to the present day, portraits that hang here as history continues to be made."

RELATED: A Look Back at Our All-Time Favorite First Lady Portraits Hung in the White House

The former first lady then turned a more emotional page, reflecting about her own story growing up as a Black girl in the South Side of Chicago.

"For me, 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 Dolley Madison. She was never supposed to live in this house, and she definitely wasn't supposed to serve as first lady."

She continued, exploring where the "supposed to" notions came from. "Too often in this country people feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in," she said, "that they have to make a lot of money or come from a certain group or class or faith in order to matter."

RELATED: What to Know About the Artists Who Painted Barack and Michelle Obama's Official White House Portraits

Facing the portraits, she added, "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're seeing is that there's a reminder that there's a place for everyone in this country because, as Barack said, the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world."

Former President Barack Obama kisses his wife former first lady Michelle Obama after they unveiled their official White House portraits during a ceremony for the unveiling in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Washington.
Former President Barack Obama kisses his wife former first lady Michelle Obama after they unveiled their official White House portraits during a ceremony for the unveiling in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Washington.

Andrew Harnik/AP

"It is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can too," she added. "That's what this country is about."

The mom of two explained that, for her, the U.S. "is 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's 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 this day isn't about me or Barack, it's not even about these beautiful paintings," Michelle continued. "It's about telling that fuller story, a story that includes every single American and every single corner of the country so that our kids and grandkids can see something more for themselves."

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Nearing the end of her speech, Michelle hinted at the divisive far-right agenda that works against minorities.

"As much as some folks might want us to believe that story [of inclusiveness] has lost some of its shine — that division and discrimination and everything else might've 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," she ended. "Never more so than today."