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The smooth compromise: how Obama’s iconography obscured his omissions | Barack Obama

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From the beginning, Obama’s team was invested in constructing a certain image of what would be deemed a “historic” presidency. During Obama’s campaign, the artist Shepard Fairey, who designed the famous “Hope” poster, was widely acknowledged as his key iconographer. But, in retrospect, who Obama was and what he represented endures in the public imagination thanks to the work of the White House photographer Pete Souza, a longtime photojournalist who first had the assignment under Ronald Reagan. Over time, Souza helped create a new image of race in the US. This was an image of a postracial nation, where postracial didn’t mean liberation – it meant a US where race was solely affect and gesture, rather than the old brew of capital, land and premature death. Progress would deposit us in a place where black would be pure style – a style that the ruling class could finally wear out.

In the thick of the 2008 primary, in an essay titled Native Son, George Packer argued that after a half century when “rightwing populism has been the most successful political force in America”, there was finally hope for an alternative. “Obama is a black candidate,” he wrote, “who can tell Americans of all races to move beyond race.” The ensuing years bore out the impossibility of that widely held belief, but it was already evident in the language. How could a single person be black and capable of moving everybody beyond race?

The figure Packer describes, and the mystique Obama cultivated, is messianic. Throughout his presidency, Obama strained to make clear that he was not a radical, but when it suited him politically, he was content to place himself in that tradition. In one of Souza’s most famous photos, taken at night, Obama is silhouetted by the light bouncing off the monument to Martin Luther King Jr and looking off in the same direction as King. The image is well exposed but not particularly noteworthy in its own right, except in its implication. The man was a testament to the success and failure of the struggle that preceded him.

Anybody with Souza’s job has two imperatives: don’t miss the moment, and don’t make the president look bad. To accomplish the first, you shoot a lot. To accomplish the second, you edit well. The Martin Luther King Jr photo, which was reprinted in Souza’s 2017 book Obama: An Intimate Portrait, fits easily within the photographer’s body of work. Taken as a whole, we saw a man who was young and handsome, dressed sharply and had a beautiful family. His coterie included some of the best-credentialled black figures in government and entertainment. Scanning through An Intimate Portrait – published almost exactly a year after the election that rejected Obama’s legacy – it is now clear what we were sold: someone finally made good on restoring JFK’s Camelot.

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This image will probably hang over us for some time. Obama is too charismatic for it to be otherwise, and the shortcut he offers between here and some peaceful, prosperous future is simply too attractive. I first thought he would win when he responded to Hillary Clinton’s attacks in the primary by brushing dirt off his shoulder, the way Jay-Z had done years earlier. Here was the Talented Tenth, the black elite that turn-of-the-century white liberals had thought capable of real leadership, only somehow transfigured so that he was of the national ruling class and not just the “black community”. There was much he wasn’t willing to do materially, and just as much he was willing to do emotionally. He always had a nod or dap that indicated a common feeling even where there weren’t common politics. When Obama brushed his shoulders, the crowd roared. A journalist from the Washington Post later asked the campaign if he meant to reference the rapper, and his adviser Tommy Vietor responded that the candidate “has some Jay-Z on his iPod”. A nod, but no more.

The Dirt Off Your Shoulder moment came a month after the then senator delivered his A More Perfect Union speech in response to the controversy swirling around his former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. Wright’s damnation of the US is well remembered, but his reasons were less frequently commented on. The churchman shouted: “We took this country by terror. We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease.” He continued with a list of invasions and bombings. “Violence,” he warned, “begets violence.” Obama’s response, now considered a benchmark in race-based oratory, was an eloquent betrayal. With one hand he pointed to the US’s outrages against his people and with the other he closed the door on those who were outraged. The anger and bitterness, he said, were counterproductive, and it was better to stand above it. This plan did not work out, though it may have saved his campaign.

Over time, proliferating images of black people under attack and rising up in response – the decimation of black household wealth in the post-2008 recession’s waves of devaluations and defaults; the protests and riots in Oakland, Brooklyn and Ferguson – undermined the smooth compromise Obama and his team had tried to signal. But the Obama era’s true collapse was defined by spasmodic shows of white-nationalist force. Once safely out of office, he acknowledged that “millions of Americans” had been “spooked by a black man in the White House”. An undeniable truth, but one that was miles away from the embrocations he had offered the country when he launched his national career by declaring that “there is not a black America and a white America”. That kind of thing sounds like denialism to some, a postracial utopia to others, and then, in certain places, like a threat.

Souza took two remarkable inauguration photos in 2009. In the first, Barack and Michelle Obama smile as their foreheads nearly touch. The scene is a little comical: inside a freight elevator five men in tuxedos do their best not to stare at the new president, who looks like a high school senior with his jacket draped around his wife’s shoulders. It’s the kind of ostensibly off-the-cuff moment that lets people feel as if they understand something of the intimacy of this marriage – never mind that an image like this, bearing the status of an Official White House Photo, requires numerous rounds of bureaucratic approval.

The second photo is from the following evening. An incandescent overhead light in the elevator to the White House’s private residence catches the president in its glow. Obama grins. His hands are up near his neck undoing his bow tie, or maybe loosening his collar. Here is the triumphal, affable arrogance that his fans found so endearing. Although the photos are composed differently, the way the light caresses Obama’s visage reminds me of Paul Schutzer’s photograph of John F Kennedy and Jackie at his inauguration ball. In a balcony above a crowd, Kennedy stands and points off to the left. His wife, seated, looks up at him with admiration, and a soft glow frames his hair and glints off his forehead. It is hard to look at these images and not think that these men were destined for something. The light falls on everybody, but it doesn’t always look like that when it does.

Obama at The Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial in Washington in 2011.Obama at The Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial in Washington in 2011. Photograph: Granger/Rex/Shutterstock

In another famous photo from the first year of his presidency, Obama is shown fist-bumping a custodian as he leaves the Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth. The point of the image was not that the president was a tribune of the working class. It was affecting precisely because it worked against the expectation that the most powerful man in the world would not greet the janitorial staff. Presidents are rarely pictured with them at all. But the implication surpassed the barest sense of noblesse oblige. More than a decade before handshakes were suspended from common usage, it was still possible to read a fist bump as a particularly not-white greeting. The most arresting and highly disseminated images from Obama’s presidency succeeded because they operated with a critical understanding not only of how presidents had been depicted, but how black people had been depicted. It might be a pound, a bump, a betrayal of sympathies for al-Qaida, or the appearance of a latent class consciousness. In all likelihood, it was just “Hello”, but a photograph is never the thing it depicts.

The backlash to Obama’s eight years in power would lead you to believe that the president’s greatest sin was his determination to elevate the living standards of black Americans, but even the vaguest memory of those years belies that. Still, the sanctified image of Obama survived his record and looks only more burnished compared with that of his successor. The politics of the present moment attest to this. Obama’s policy choices during the 2008 recession are frequently derided by members of his own party, even as they are careful not to impugn the man who made those decisions. Much of Joe Biden’s primary campaign hinged on his association with the former president, down to his campaign’s isolating the e in Biden to evoke the o in Obama’s logo.

When Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times that Amanda Gorman’s performance at Biden’s inauguration had reestablished a “connection in America between cultural and political life”, he hinted at something Trump was never able to accomplish, despite his years in television – he was omnipresent, skilled in commanding and contaminating attention, but he couldn’t steer culture. Obama made himself the image of a popular president in the way Reagan and, even more successfully, Kennedy once did. The word iconic has been watered down in common parlance, but his team understood its religious connotation. It wasn’t just, as Obama admitted, that some people were spooked by the image of a black president. What was unnerving was how good the images looked.

Pete Souza has only become more prominent since he left the White House, as he transformed himself from a government employee into a popular combatant for the anti-Trump “resistance”. A year after Obama: An Intimate Portrait, halfway into Trump’s presidency, he published Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, a glossy book filled with a few hundred pages of cheap shots comparing Trump’s administration to Obama’s. In the book, Trump is typically represented by his tweets or headline clippings attesting to his incompetence. On the opposite page is a selection of Souza’s photos of his boss: Obama greeting a trick-or-treater on Halloween, jogging, talking to Jay-Z, hugging Michelle, speaking to Vladimir Putin. You get the gist pretty quickly. Trump is a buffoon and Obama was “presidential”.

If Shade is half-hearted, an Instagram art project misguidedly ennobled by a large trim size and hardcover binding, Obama: An Intimate Portrait was a paradigmatic coffee-table book. As the years pass, Shade will be most useful as a document of the shock and consternation that Obama’s inner circle felt at the onset of Trump’s presidency. Intimate Portrait, by contrast, feels more definitive. In 352 pages, Souza lays out nothing less than a visual history of Barack Obama, endorsed by the man himself. Souza’s captions are explanatory, only giving you the essential information. The book trusts the power of its images: the president in the East Room dancing with Michelle, his mouth open wide to sing along with Earth, Wind & Fire, her neck draped in pearls; the president floating midair on a basketball court; the president standing at a lectern in Accra, his hand outstretched, silhouetted by a bright light shining through the Ghanaian and American flags set side by side.

Barack and Michele Obama with staff and secret service agents on the day of his first inauguration in 2009.Barack and Michele Obama with staff and secret service agents on the day of his first inauguration in 2009. Photograph: Pete Souza/The White House Photo/EPA

For all the ostensible intimacy on display, the book reveals more through its absences. There are only two pictorial representations of Black Lives Matter. The first is an unremarkable image of the president preparing a statement on Ferguson at a holiday home in Martha’s Vineyard. The second, a few pages later, shows Obama in the Oval Office meeting with organisers from Ferguson. The words Black Lives Matter never appear in the book. Considering the movement’s impact on domestic politics, the omission feels like more than an oversight.

In a 2020 interview with Vox, Souza claimed, as many artists do, that he never considered context or interpretation while he was making a photograph. In spite of what cameraphones have led us to believe, photography is a slow process, and most of the work is reflection. Artistic influence and taste ensure that the “eye” sees what is there and what might be there soon. Photographers look at the world and see photographs: textures, the blocking of bodies in a certain space, the quality and shape of light. One has to go on their word, but the traditions of street photography and photojournalism both tend to shy away from direction. Only in this sense is it useful to talk about taking a photograph, if what is meant by taking is seizing something from the world. Even in a digital workflow, photography is what happens after all that. It is discrimination, reduction, the adjustment of tone and colour. It is flicking through contact sheets or folders and trying to find what is new and already recognisable. The artist may not know or care why they are making the choices they are making, or they may be inarticulate, but there are reasons.

In the introduction to An Intimate Portrait, Souza wrote that he took nearly two million photographs over eight years. If he had no sense of context or intention, why not release them all? One of Souza’s favourite photographs shows a three-year-old boy looking up at the president. Obama’s arm and hand are in the frame, just barely touching his cheek. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote of this image, “Unlike the ones in all paintings and photographs of all previous presidents, it is not a white hand. How can anyone say that means nothing?” Surely, Souza knew the pictorial tradition of a hand offered in blessing, running from the saints through kings to emperors. A black child, head back, eyes wide, his face reflecting a light from above, and, from beyond the edges of our vision, a touch that appears so tender it can only have been offered in benediction.

President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a visit to the Oval Office in 2009.President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a visit to the Oval Office in 2009. Photograph: The White House/Getty Images

In May 2009, a young black boy asked Obama if he could touch his head. “I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he said. Souza caught the moment as the president bent over. The resulting photo became one of his team’s favourites. It hung in the West Wing and the senior adviser David Axelrod had a framed copy in his office. “This can be such a cynical business,” Axelrod said, “and then there are moments like that that just remind you it’s worth it.” Whenever I see the picture I skip by it quickly, embarrassed by its plainness and made melancholy by all that had to transpire to make a child patting a man’s head take on national importance.

It matters whether or not black children can see themselves rising to positions of respect, but we might also ask for a world where it is not the position that makes respect due.

For all the ways Obama appeared to undo the strictures on black Americans’ relationship with their country, what he really did was excel within them. In Black Reconstruction in America, WEB Du Bois wrote bitterly of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which led a failed assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863. “How extraordinary,” he wrote, “and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men.” (The 54th’s exploits retained their fame well into the next century, and in 1989 were turned into the movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington, who won his first Oscar for the role of Private Trip.)

Obama was an elaboration on this theme. In 2008 he ran as an anti-war candidate, but by 2011, reflecting on the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, he told his advisers: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” For that role, too, there is a Souza photo. In the aptly titled The Situation Room, Obama and the leaders of the national security apparatus look beyond the frame at a live feed of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. A sheet of paper sitting in front of Hillary Clinton is blurred out. She holds her hand over her mouth. The fixity of the president’s stare makes it look as if he has not blinked in some time. The New York Times editorial board praised Obama for succeeding and complimented him for “showing guts”. It was his signature achievement. During the civil war, a white officer surveyed a battlefield outside Nashville and in the corpses saw proof that black men would fight. He stated: “The problem is solved. The Negro is a man, a soldier, a hero.”

Pete Souza at work in 2016.Pete Souza at work in 2016. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

This is the story that many black Americans like to tell. We are, by virtue of our struggles and martyrs, the country’s conscience. It makes sense that such a deeply Christian country would believe that redemption can only be bought with blood. Strange that it must keep flowing. Stranger that its sense of sacrifice is transitive, often taking the not-quite-American as its object. My grandfather once told me a story. I don’t know if it’s true, but it goes like this: at Pearl Harbor on the evening of 6 December 1941, a friend of his was furious about the military’s racism. A commanding officer overheard him and told him they were in a “white man’s navy”. The night became day and, as the bombs fell, the same officer rushed madly about trying to rally the troops. My grandfather’s friend reminded him whose navy it was and walked away.

My grandfather stayed and cooked on a ship throughout the war. He never saw his friend again. Every so often I would look up key phrases from the story, suspecting that he must have picked up a tale with such a neat reversal from somewhere else. I decided after some time that its truth was less important than the fact that after serving for 22 years, he told this story without a hint of malice. I never had enough access to his interiority to be certain as to why, but I have some guesses. His friend had betrayed his country, but that same country never believed it was his, or my grandfather’s, to begin with. These are not the stories Americans tell. No one is redeemed and nothing is written down in the ledger that black patriots never tire of displaying. There they have a running tally of the blood and lives a people have given in defence of a nation that rebukes them. With each generation the ledger grows longer, but the debt is never paid. Between the revolutionaries, whose memories can be co-opted, and the reformists, there are also those who just find ways to save their own skin. They are not thanked, they are not honoured, they are not even insulted. They are forgotten.

Obama was always best at engineering a swelling sense of pride and possibility, the feeling that the clouds would soon pass. This is what he promised during a 2008 campaign speech in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In a video of the speech, which the campaign wisely turned into an ad, the light falls off across his face as he looks into the distance through sheets of rain. “Sometimes the skies look cloudy and it’s dark,” he begins. People are already screaming, though all he has done is describe the weather. He winds his way through the metaphor and the music swells as he testifies to the power of perseverance. He finishes with, “If you’re willing to lock arms and march, and talk to your friends, talk to your neighbours, make a phone call, do some organising … then I promise you, Fredericksburg, we will win Virginia. We will win this general election. We will change the country and we will change the world.”

Time has passed, and now we have done these things to feed our neighbours; we have done these things so that strangers will know which apartments, which houses, which theatres they can run into when the police chase them down. Time has passed and now he admonishes us for saying “defund the police” because it will prevent us from getting what we really want, as though the slogan somehow fails to express our desire. Here again is the limit of the purported alternative. Everything can get better so long as nothing changes. I think he was more right 12 years ago. If we’re willing to lock arms, to organise, to fight, then we can win, but much more than the state of Virginia.

I was meant to fashion myself in Obama’s image. We are lanky black men who attended the same college. Both of us are good at talking our way into and out of what we want and what we do not. We are both possessed of a vanity only barely concealed behind a reserved demeanour and the theatrics of university-formed intellectualism. He is only a few years younger than my father, but it was not the well known pictures of him and his family that have stuck with me. The one image of his presidency that I have never shaken is not a Souza production at all, but a black-and-white photo of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, his hair a mess of curls, smiling as wide as he can. Awlaki was a 16-year-old from Denver who had gone to Yemen to search for his dad. He was killed by a missile fired from an American drone. His family claims this was no accident. The administration never officially accepted responsibility but leaked that someone else was the target. Robert Gibbs, then Obama’s campaign adviser, responded to a question about executing an American minor without due process by saying, “He should have [had] a far more responsible father”. He was referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, who had allegedly “gone operational” with al-Qaida and had been targeted and killed weeks earlier, unbeknownst to his son.

Joe Biden, Obama and Hillary Clinton with White House staff and members of the national security team during the mission against Osama bin Laden in 2011.Joe Biden, Obama and Hillary Clinton with White House staff and members of the national security team during the mission against Osama bin Laden in 2011. Photograph: Pete Souza/The White House/AFP/Getty Images

Abdulrahman al-Awkaki was only a few years younger than me, but when he was killed I thought myself an adult and him a kid. This no doubt coloured my feeling for him. There were others whose names I never learned because they were not Americans and so didn’t even merit what little American media coverage Awlaki’s death did, but the trickle-down effect of these prejudices still led me to his face. I made his picture my profile photo on Facebook, being 20 and thinking that the problem was a general lack of awareness. I put his birthday in my phone. It is the only one that doesn’t belong to someone I know. These were silly, insufficient gestures born of rage, narcissism and powerlessness. Obama significantly increased funding for fatherhood programmes in federal welfare budgets. He long subscribed to a strain of social conservatism around familial relations that largely went unnoticed because political discourse, confusing black skin and black power, is predisposed to receive every black politician as quite liberal until this is strenuously disproven. He constantly positioned himself as a father. I think of Obama bent so low that a child can touch the crown of his head. I think of his morbid humour, telling the Jonas Brothers if they got “any ideas” about Sasha and Malia to remember the words “predator drone”. I think of him in the Rose Garden, his brow furrowed against the light, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” I think of Gibbs, appearing irritated to even be asked about Abdulrahman. I searched for some repudiation of his remarks for years afterwards, not because an apology was mine to accept, but because I hoped someone would admit what everybody knows: that many of us should have had better fathers but have gone searching for them anyway.

This is the price of being painted into the family portrait, and we – black voters, soldiers, churchgoers or whichever subset of black people is currently being thanked – should not pay. This image is being bought with our own lives and with lives in the Middle East and south Asia. You start with a freedom dream, something bigger and more precious than a nation, and somewhere along the line, when it is absorbed, it mutates. Obama’s pablum about there being but one America was quickly disproven. At any rate, I prefer the words of his billionaire buddy Jay-Z: “We ain’t even supposed to be here.” The persistent refusal to allow people who have, in some cases, been here for centuries into the fold should give us room to demand more, not less.

If the best that we can hope to be is the soul and conscience of this country, then its record would condemn us, too. How far could we get if we didn’t feel compelled to couch a struggle for liberation in paeans to its impediment? This is a vision where the “hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs” is imbricated not with anti-colonial struggles but with “the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong delta,” as Obama referred to John Kerry during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It is a noxious compromise – the promise of black freedom if only we wade through the putrescence of a black American nationalism. Here our dreams are delimited by borders, which is to say we hold out hope that we might become the folks that others want to be. But the victories are narrow. Years of a hypervisible black elite did little to staunch waves of dispossession and despair. The psychic balm of singular triumphs is not worth it. It isn’t even a balm. Our minds are yet pushed to the brink. Many of us have found ourselves on street corners screaming out our theories about a white supremacist conspiracy and, because there were enough people around, we were thought merely furious. It can go differently when you don’t have numbers. When power changes the image it projects, but not its function, people tend to go home and shut their doors, denying that the footfalls they hear outside are those running for their lives, and those tasked with taking them. It is an isolating practice, trying to read furtive glances and clenched fists, seeking signs of solidarity, of common knowledge of what we have lived through. The past year has already borne more loneliness than a lifetime should. I hope they do not catch us out there by ourselves again.

A longer version of this article appears in the new issue of n+1 magazine. See nplusonemag.com

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