Biden to host Obamas in September for White House portrait ceremony Trump shunned

Mark Wilson

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will host former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at the White House in early September for the unveiling of their official White House portraits, an Obama spokesperson said.

The traditional East Room ceremony unveiling the Obamas’ portraits, usually a moment when the sitting president and the first lady fête their immediate predecessors, was put off while President Donald Trump was in office given the bitter, estranged relationship between the two men.

Because of the Covid pandemic, the event was further delayed after Biden took office last year. It's typically held indoors in the East Room of the White House.

The Obamas are scheduled to appear with Biden and first lady Jill Biden on Sept. 7, the Obama spokesperson said Thursday. The artists who painted the former first couple will also be revealed at that time, as has been tradition for presidential portrait unveilings since the ritual began decades ago.

The event will mark Michelle Obama’s first time returning to the White House since Jan. 20, 2017.

Official White House portraits of presidents and first ladies are separate from those that hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, where the Obamas unveiled theirs in February 2018.

The process is facilitated by the privately funded White House Historical Association. Once a president and a first lady select their artist or artists, the association negotiates a contract that includes a confidentiality agreement in which the artist’s identity and details of the portrait are kept secret.

Stewart McLaurin, the president of the White House Historical Association, said portraits of the two presidents who immediately preceded Obama — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — hang just inside the White House on the main floor. Obama’s portrait would traditionally be in that area, with Clinton’s moving to a different location on the same level of the White House.

“It’s a special moment. These are things that become a part of the White House for years and years and years to come,” McLaurin said. “This is an old and customary tradition, but it’s important in White House history to maintain this.”

As for when Trump and former first lady Melania Trump might have their portraits unveiled in the White House, that seems highly unlikely while Biden is in office. And Trump could run for the presidency again, so his portrait might not be complete for some time.

“They are aware of the process, and the process is underway,” McLaurin said of the Trumps. “I would say it’s in the initial stages.”

The East Room unveiling ceremony has traditionally been a bipartisan affair. The Obamas hosted Bush and former first lady Laura Bush for theirs in 2012.

“We may have our differences politically,” Obama said at the time, “but the presidency transcends those differences.”

That wasn’t the case for Obama and Trump. Neither president was interested in participating in such an event. Biden said during the 2020 campaign that he looked forward to hosting the event for Obama, his former boss, if he won the White House.

Obama’s portrait is expected to be displayed alongside those of his predecessors on the main floor of the White House residence.