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Biden unveils the official White House portraits of the Obamas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Obamas returned to the White House today for the unveiling of their official portraits, and the paintings are a bit unconventional. Former President Barack Obama, wearing a dark suit, stands against a white background, looking straight ahead. And in her portrait, former first lady Michelle Obama is seated on a couch in the red room wearing an off-the-shoulder, pale blue gown. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, it was a warm homecoming.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Obama's portrait is hyper realistic, so detailed it almost looks like a photograph. He said that makes a statement.

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BARACK OBAMA: Presidents so often get airbrushed, even take on a mythical status, especially after you've gone.

KEITH: But he said presidents and first ladies are human. They're flawed.

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B OBAMA: 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.

KEITH: Obama hosted George W. Bush for his portrait unveiling in 2012, but this tradition didn't happen during the Trump presidency. It's not clear why. But that meant Biden, who served as Obama's vice president, got to honor his friend.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For eight years we grew to be a family for each other, through our highs and our lows, a family from different backgrounds, brought together by a shared value set.

KEITH: The Bidens and Obamas were mostly earnest as they spoke to a packed room of friends and former aides. But there was humor, too, like the former president's complaint that his portrait by Robert McCurdy was maybe a little bit too realistic.

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B OBAMA: You'll note that he refused to hide any of my gray hairs, refused my request to make my ears smaller.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Michelle Obama's voice broke with emotion as she talked about how unlikely it felt that her husband, a biracial kid with a funny name, and a girl who grew up on the south side of Chicago would find their way to the White House.

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MICHELLE OBAMA: It is still a bit odd for me to stand in this historic space, see this big, beautiful painting staring back at me.

KEITH: That portrait was painted by Sharon Sprung. It joins a continuum of history that began with George and Martha Washington. And though it may feel awkward, Michelle Obama said moments like these are important.

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M OBAMA: Traditions like this matter not just for those of us who hold these positions but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy.

KEITH: When this tradition began, the portraits were a way for the American people to know what their leaders looked like. Now, they show the president and first lady as they see themselves, says Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association.

STEWART MCLAURIN: To some people they will be a surprise and different because they are nontraditional. To others, they will be very affirming. And yes, that's him. Yes, that's her. And I think 50 years from now, 75 years from now, when people walk through the White House and they see these portraits of President and Mrs. Obama, they will see them as President and Mrs. Obama wanted to be depicted. And I think that's what's important.

KEITH: Or, as Michelle Obama said, once our time is up, we move on. And all the remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts and these portraits. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.