(CNN) — The most surprising facet of Michelle Obama’s return to the White House Wednesday was that it was she — not her husband — who slipped into an overtly political role as their official portraits were unveiled.
Without mentioning the name of former President Donald Trump — because she didn’t have to — the former first lady spoke out forcefully about Trump’s threats to democracy as he continues to insist that he won the 2020 election.
On stage Wednesday, Obama underscored that that threat endures as she flipped the traditional script, letting her husband handle the lighter ceremonial duties surrounding the unveiling of the portraits.
It was her speech that took the harder edge as she stressed the importance of a peaceful transfer of power and the promise that in America every vote will count — sacred pillars of democracy that Trump sought to topple when he resisted leaving office, fanned the flames of the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol and tasked his advisers with machinations intended to overturn the 2020 election.
It was just the latest example of a woman speaking up about the importance of rectifying the country’s broken politics and warning of the dangers that Trump’s election lies continue to pose. Obama’s speech followed a summer during which women — from two former Georgia election workers and a Capitol Hill police officer to former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson and Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney — have been among the most outspoken figures calling attention to Trump’s post-election conduct and the chaos it created with their appearances at the January 6 hearings.
While many of the men who served in Trump’s administration and the male politicians who want to stay in his good graces have chosen to remain silent about Trump’s tyrannical behavior after the 2020 election, it was a group of female witnesses who risked their own safety and reputations to provide the most vivid accounts of what went on at the White House in the days when democracy teetered on the brink through their testimony before the House select committee investigating the insurrection.
In normal times, Wednesday’s portrait ceremony would have taken place during Trump’s years in office, but those kinds of gracious touches were swept aside by the tribalism and vitriol of the Trump era. Historically, the portrait unveiling has been a touchpoint between successive administrations that symbolizes the spirit of national unity and continuity that is supposed to transcend America’s partisan politics. But Trump and former first lady Melania Trump did not attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration, and the gulf between the two parties has only intensified since then.
Obama pointedly referenced those lost opportunities Wednesday as she emphasized “why moments like these are important” and why “traditions like this matter” — not just for the politicians who are honored, she said, but “for everyone participating in and watching our democracy.”
“You see the people, they make their voices heard with their vote,” the former first lady said. “We hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Those of us lucky enough to serve, work, as Barack said, 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.”
Moving on is something that Trump has refused to do. He has used the midterm elections to relitigate his grievances about the 2020 election and continues to reinforce the myth that the last election was fraudulent, even though there is no evidence to back up his claims.
America is now bracing for another set of contests in November where Trump has handpicked many election deniers running for office, some of whom are already driving false narratives about election security as voters try to navigate an array of new laws across the country that will make it harder for them to cast ballots.
Figures like Obama and Cheney, who lost her House seat after refusing to stop speaking out against Trump, as well as the female witnesses who appeared before the House select committee, are testing the premise that there are still voters in America who want to see and participate in a less strident politics, where democratic traditions and election results are honored and an orderly transfer of power is a given.
They want politics to be forum — as the former first lady said Wednesday — where democracy proves to be “much stronger than our differences.” But that remains an open question in a moment when America has never been more fractured.