I’m overcome by the news. I reported on Queen Elizabeth II just once, when she visited San Francisco in 1983. Then as now, as the world mourns her death, I am gratefully reminded how in our American democracy there is no monarchy.
I respect the Queen, of course, but I am still thinking about how in this country we do not have royalty, we have a president and first lady like Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
BOMO was back in Washington for the unveiling of their official portraits this week. All President Biden had to say was “Welcome home,” and I could feel it instantly. Not just in the room, but I could feel it all the way through my skinny TV screen, with C-SPAN on in my 106 degree California.
The good feelings of being American, the invincible audacity, the peppy mojo of it all, BOMO brought it back–not just for Biden, but for everyone watching.
You’ll recall the Obamas left the White House in that tense but peaceful inaugural transition in January 2017, the way it’s supposed to be.
Governance has never been the same after America entered The Dark Years. How dark? Biden’s been fighting the darkness 24-7 ever since he took over in 2020.
But as we know, the narcissistic drama of a twice impeached defeated president—No. 45—never ends.
The Obamas were back in the White House the very day an exclusive Washington Post investigation exposed that the former disgraced President had documents containing the top secret nuclear capabilities of a foreign government, secrets so closely guarded only the president and a handful of officials were aware of their existence. Lives were at stake if the information fell into the wrong hands. All of that was found last month at Mar-a-Lago, secured with just a single padlock.
There was perhaps was no better time for the Obamas to show up at the White House.
More than ever, America needed No Drama Obama.
And Obama rose to the occasion. He kept things light so we could remember those happier times.
“Thanks for letting us invite a few friends to the White House,” Barack Obama said to Biden at the start. “We will try not to tear up the place.”
A burst of laughter put people at ease. But maybe because we all know he couldn’t tear up the place any worse than President 45.
Obama was funny and gracious and gave Biden his props, thanking him for his “decency” and “strength.”
“Thanks to your faith in our democracy and the American people,” Obama said, “the country is better off than when you took office. And we should all be deeply grateful for that.”
There were ten seconds of applause. It could have lasted longer.
The unveiling of official presidential portraits should always be a good time. It’s about history and art, more than policy. But Biden had set the tone by reminding us of the kind of presidency and country we had under Obama.
“We weren’t sure we’d get anything done on ACA,” Biden said. “Think about the compromise. You refused. You went big, and now the Affordable Care Act is there permanently, and it’s even being improved on.”
Of course, that’s not all. The Recovery Act brought America back from the Great Recession. Anyone with a house mortgage under water back then knows what Obama’s HAMP program did to make things right.
And then he mentioned one thing that still matters to many Asian Americans.
“You stood up for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers,” Biden said. “Dreamers who only know America as their home.”
These were among the Obama era polices that changed America for the good.
And it came out of an administration that governed like we were all one family.
Biden recalled how his kids and grandkids had a sleepover in the hotel room, the night of the Denver convention in 2008 when the Obama-Biden ticket was forged.
“For eight years, we grew to be a family for each other,” Biden said. “A family from different backgrounds brought together by a shared value set.”
It was a sentiment Jill Biden also shared in her time at the podium. Sure, those days weren’t always perfect, but those were good years for Asian Americans and other BIPOC communities.
I know the victory over equity pay for Filipino Veterans of World War II after nearly six decades of fighting is something that Filipino Americans will never forget. Obama got it done.
MICHELLE OBAMA’S MESSAGE
But for me, the day was Michelle Obama’s, as she connected all the dots at this unveiling of the portraits.
This was a time for art, after all. Barack Obama’s portrait, a masterful bit of photorealism by Robert McCurdy, captured Obama poised for history, the first biracial African American ever to be president, a standout amid a background of white space.
And there was Michelle Obama, in a Sharon Sprung portrait, full of life and color, a first lady like never before.
Both Obamas individually were portrayed, artfully, more truthfully than any literal photo, with plenty of room for imagination, appreciation, and inspiration.
Michelle Obama wearing braids was humbled to “see this big, beautiful painting staring back at me,” she said. “I never could have imagined that any of this would be part of my story.”
She launched into the importance of presidential portraits, White House traditions, and why they are “absolutely necessary.”
They matter for everyone participating in and watching our democracy, she said. Because people make their voices heard with their vote, and an inauguration is held to ensure a peaceful transition of power, she continued. “And once our time is up, we move on and all that remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts and these portraits.”
That’s the way it’s supposed to be in a democracy.
Then came more of the personal touch, about how this was happening to an African American woman who “wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.”
Michelle Obama asked, “And who determines that?”
“Too often in this country, people feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in,” Michelle Obama continued. “That they have to make a lot of money or come from a certain group, or class or faith in order to matter. 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 are seeing is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country.”
The important takeaway from this event.
“For every young kid who is doubting themselves, to believe that they can too,” Michelle Obama said. “That is what this country is about. It’s not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It’s a place where everyone should have a fair shot.”
In a democracy, a president isn’t king.
She added how division and discrimination might have dimmed the light in our country, but that what we share is “so much bigger than what we don’t. Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences.”
It was a message that should speak to every Asian American, young and old. Immigrant, native born.
On the TV screen, the seated audience members were primarily white. I saw one or two Asian American faces. The one I recognized was Chris Lu, the current U.S. Ambassador to the UN for Management and Reform, who in the Obama administration served as U.S Deputy Secretary of Labor. A former classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School.
But on this day, the faces that stuck out were still the portraits. The art. Derived from the imagination, both portraits enabled us to better appreciate our memory of the past, and to envision the possibility of an even greater future.
One wonders about the portrait of the 45th president. Perhaps one day, an orange-haired face will be on the walls, after serving time for violations of the Espionage Act.
But let’s stay positive. Can we imagine a portrait of an Asian American president someday?
Someday in America. It will happen. Or at least, it can happen. You don’t have to be royalty to be a president or first lady. That’s the promise of a thriving democracy.
NOTE: I talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.