Barack Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency changed forever the way we see the American presidency. Obviously, he looked different from the men who preceded him, but he also brought a different sensibility and aesthetic to the office. Some of the change was traceable to the time he rose to power, which explains the selfies and tweets, and the hip-hop references. Others felt singular to his role as the first black president. The result, in both cases, was a series of striking and novel presidential images and moments.
With Obama’s ascent, the presidency began to look completely different from anything in memory. In this April 2008 photo taken at a town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., during his campaign, a confident Obama brushes some imaginary dirt off his shoulder, miming a popular hip-hop anthem and using it as a metaphor for how he deals with detractors and critics. Some of those critics would later see this kind of confidence as arrogance.
Among the many novel fascinations about the nation’s first black president was his hair: its change in color over time, its length. In September 2014, the president visited Clarence Tinker Elementary School at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where he and first-grader Edwin Caleb traded hair pats. After Edwin said he had short hair, Obama touched the boy’s head and said: “Mine, too. Here, want to touch it?”
On the night in June 2008 when he secured enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination for president, Obama addressed a crowd at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Before the speech, he and his wife celebrated with what The Washington Post described as “the fist bump heard ’round the world.” The gesture felt so overwhelmingly black and so new in national politics that it spawned a huge debate about cultural significance. “He wears his cultural blackness all over the place,” observed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Obama explained it differently: “It captured what I love about my wife. There’s an irreverence about her and sense that for all the hoopla, that I’m her husband and sometimes we’ll do silly things, and yet she’s proud of me and she gives me some credit once in a while that I actually pull some things off.”
It is hard to overstate the level of excitement that gripped Washington during Obama’s first inauguration. More than 2 million people crammed onto the Mall for his swearing-in and to hear the new president say: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
President Obama has occasionally deployed his singing voice in public with soulful or spiritual music. First, it was a snippet of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theatre in New York in January 2012. A month later, when a group of blues all-stars gathered in the East Room of the White House for a “Red, White and Blues” concert, legendary guitarist Buddy Guy goaded Obama into joining in the closing number, “Sweet Home Chicago.” Mick Jagger handed the president the microphone, and the commander in chief crooned: “Come on, baby, don’t you wanna go.” B.B. King joined in — “Same old place” — and the president closed out the number: “Sweet home Chicago.” Among some of the participants that evening were, onstage from left: Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark Jr. and B.B. King.
Among the most enduring critiques of the Obama presidency was an assertion that Obama was too cerebral, too emotionally distant, too aloof. For all the praise for his putative cool, there was an equal measure of criticism that he was sometimes too laid back and not angry enough. That debate produced a lot of commentary on whether Obama’s slowness to anger was related to his blackness, lessons learned in the limits of black rage and whether he was avoiding being cast as the stereotypical angry black man. In a 2012 essay in the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates framed the problem this way: “Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed.” Obama addressed the problem most explicitly in a comedy sketch at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, in which comedian Keegan-Michael Key appeared as Luther, his “anger translator.” Obama stuck to his usual “dulcet tones” while Key decoded the hidden anger.
This moment captured by White House photographer Pete Souza is a simple shot of the president and his top aides on Marine One, traveling from the White House to Joint Base Andrews and then on to Texas for the day. The group includes Valerie Jarrett in the far corner, with the president, Bill Burton and Patrick Gaspard all looking at Reggie Love — a small group of five, every one of them black. “We joked that it was ‘Soul Plane,’ ” Burton told New York Magazine. “And we’ve often joked about it since — that it was the first time in history only black people were on that helicopter.”
Obama’s June 2015 eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., will be remembered for Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace.” He was at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as Mother Emanuel, to honor the nine people killed there by a young white man. But the eulogy also served as a meditation on race during his presidency. Before he broke into song, he said: “None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk.” The eulogy sounded so much like a sermon that the minister who closed the service offered his thanks to “the Reverend President.”
— From staff reports