How will you remember President Barack Obama? As a determined politician who increased access to health care? As the commander in chief who captured and killed Osama bin Laden? As the "celebrity" president fluent in pop culture lingo and adept at social media? As the lovable dad you secretly dreamt would adopt you? As the sexy husband so plainly in love with his wife? Or as the underdog who came into office with hope-filled promises only to confront the limitations of Washington and his own political talents?
In addition to a domestic and foreign policy legacy, what remains of a presidency after it ends is the tone and standards the leader set for America. Often, those messages are communicated through photographic images. One photo can capture a historic moment, like when US forces killed Osama bin Laden, while another can lay bare a president's personality. Looking at the most defining photos of Barack Obama's presidency, we often see consistent messages of inclusivity and hope and sometimes disappointment brought on by such high expectations.
"Whether the subject likes them or not, these images are what helps define them for future generations," said Dr. Thomas Whalen, who researches presidential leadership at Boston University. While we may still be too close to Obama's time in office, Whalen turns to past presidents to illustrate the point: "We'll always remember JFK for those pictures that were taken of him during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. He looks tense, engaged, and totally in control. In contrast, the photos of Richard Nixon during Watergate depict a man deep in personal agony and denial. They are, indeed, windows to the soul, political and otherwise."
As president, Obama entertained many Americans as a relatively young, charismatic politician loved by celebrities and children alike. And often with the help of his White House photographer, Pete Souza, we saw photos of Obama both on and off the job. "Obama’s candid photos perfectly seem to capture his personality. Obama is cool, no-fuss, not easily flustered, and is often thinking," noted Dr. Nadia E. Brown, who studies race and politics at Purdue University. "These candids helped to show his governing style."
Behind-the-scenes photos of the president got people to pay attention to Obama's message — and many will also symbolize his place in history as America's first black president. Vanessa De Luca, the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, has experienced the power of these photos firsthand. "The Essence audience has adored the first family from the very moment we knew Senator Obama was running for president," she told us. The magazine, an institution in the black community, first featured the Obamas on its cover in 2008. And its October 2016 cover with Michelle and Barack was its most viral yet. According to De Luca, Obama family photos taken by Pete Souza are etched into her audience's collective memory. "To see a family so close-knit, so beautiful, and so beloved, then add to this that they are the first African-American first family in the White House, has been a journey we’ve all been privileged to witness and will remember forever."
President Obama was also the first president to skillfully leverage the internet to craft his image. "Obama has taken great advantage of technological change, incorporating social media, often predominantly visual, into his messaging strategy," explained Professor David H. Zarefsky, who teaches presidential rhetoric at Northwestern University. While Zarefsky believes that Ronald Reagan is hard to beat when it comes to using visual media, it's clear Obama took advantage of new tools, like Flickr, and social networks like Instagram and Facebook. As Zarefsky explained it, communicating through both candid and staged photos is part of a president's job. "They have become increasingly important as so much of the activity of the presidency is visual."
One person perpetually tied to Obama's visual legacy is artist Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic Hope poster during the 2008 campaign. Fairey agrees that Obama was sophisticated in his use of images. "As a campaigner, his visual identity system was one of the best that I’ve seen," Fairey told us. "His website design and logo were very powerful and memorable. I also think that some of the members of his campaign thoroughly understood how important strong visuals and symbols are."
Dr. Robert Hariman, coauthor of The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship, said no one photo can define a presidency. But he maintains that a collection of photos can capture a president's "defining moments or essential character." With that in mind, let's look back on 15 photographs we think do just that for Obama.
Leaving the Inaugural Ball, January 2009
Does this look like a couple about to head out on their honeymoon or what? After a day full of well-crafted political pageantry, this behind-the-scenes inauguration photo of the newly minted first couple presents a clear message: they're in this together. The president and first lady look exhausted yet excited. And maybe a bit uncertain of what's in store, too, just like the nation.
In her research, Dr. Brown finds that citizens often project their own ideas onto photographs of politicians and use those notions to influence their opinions about them. With that in mind, she said this photo would speak volumes about Michelle and Barack’s relationship. "They seem to sincerely enjoy each other’s company, have a similar sense of humor and other sensibilities, as well as deeply love one another. From the outside looking in, they seem to have a terrific marriage. They are friends and partners in life."
Signing the Bill to Close Guantanamo Bay Prison, January 2009
"Signing photos are a dime a dozen," said Dr. Hariman. But what stands out about this one is the unfulfilled promise it represents. On his second day of office, President Obama signed an executive order directing that the Guantanamo Bay Prison be closed within one year, aiming to fulfill one of his boldest campaign promises. After two terms, the controversial prison still remains open as a symbol of how idealism and good intentions can fall painfully short.
In addition, this photo gave America its first look at on-the-job Obama. Yet the background of powerful white men also demonstrated how far the country has to go when it comes to equal representation in government.
Letting a Child Touch His Hair, May 2009
Obama's natural way with children has allowed for the most heartwarming photos from his presidency, but this may be the most impactful one of all. "This photo means a lot to a lot of people," said Dr. Hariman. "Anyone can see a feel-good moment as the president of the United States bends down humbly to satisfy a child’s curiosity, and people of color can see a lot more as well." He elaborated: "This is almost a doubting Thomas moment — do we really have a black president? — and it extends the American dream to all."
Dr. Brown, who has written about the politics of hair and race, also noted the importance of the photo: "It humanizes him but also is a powerful symbol to black communities and peoples worldwide. The coils in Obama’s hair signify his racial identity."
Overseeing the Operation to Kill Osama bin Laden, May 2011
The most powerful thing about this photo is what you don't see: the thing so clearly capturing the full attention of the leaders assembled together in the Situation Room. That thing is the operation to bring down America's enemy number one, Osama bin Laden, which the National Security team was being updated on in real time, according to the White House.
Not only does this photo represent an important moment in history and a high point of Obama's role as commander in chief, but it also solidifies the powerful people who will be associated with the Obama presidency for years to come, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. There's no doubt it will make it to the history books, if it hasn't already.
Watching Basketball With Joe Biden, July 2012
Vice President Joe Biden proved to be the sidekick Obama needed. The vice president provided some levity when professorial Obama bordered on boring. And in political terms, Biden's Scranton, PA, background gave the Democratic ticket a foothold in white working-class communities.
“You were the first decision I made as a nominee, and it was the best,” Obama said, addressing Biden in his farewell address. "Not just because you have been a great vice president, but because in the bargain I gained a brother. And we love you and Jill like family. And your friendship has been one of the great joys of our lives." The Biden memes brought on by that friendship were one of the great internet joys of the Obama presidency, too.
Addressing the Nation After the Newtown School Shooting, December 2012
Perhaps America's most gut-wrenching mass shooting happened on Dec. 14, 2012, when a shooter killed 20 young children as well as six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. "For me the most powerful image of Obama is when he was giving the speech after the Newtown school shooting, addressing gun control and wiping a tear," recalled Fairey. "He was clearly affected emotionally but remained composed and articulate. That was a definitive image of the president."
Years after the Newtown shooting, Obama continued to express how demoralizing the ritual of reacting to gun violence without any concrete action had become. In January 2016, he announced new common sense executive action, but the inability to make a real change years after the massacre of children remains part of the legacy of his administration and the Congress who served alongside it.
Just Being a Dad, June 2014
Practically every photo of Obama with his daughters feels iconic, thanks to the genuine warmth and admiration they project. This photo of the president on a private father-daughter hike with Sasha in Great Falls, VA, captures just that.
Many politicians publicly position themselves as respectable public servants who put God and the traditional family first, especially after President Bill Clinton's sex scandal in the late '90s. But over the Obama presidency, we witnessed a president who showed us what family values really look like rather than tell us in campaign commercials.
"As somebody who didn't grow up with a father in the home, I like having men come up to me saying, 'You know, I'm really glad you're a good father,'" Obama shared in a 2008 interview. "I like that maybe some little boy somewhere who doesn't have a dad in his house sees Michelle and the girls and me out somewhere and is going to carry that image in his head with him somewhere down the road." In addition to changing insidious perceptions of black men as fathers with his own engaged parenting style, the president, along with Michelle, worked hard to strengthen America with initiatives that focus on families and children. With My Brother's Keeper, a program launched in 2014, Obama made efforts to encourage responsible fatherhood and close opportunity gaps faced by young men of color. It's clear he wanted to build on the example he set with concrete community action.
Dancing For Black History Month, February 2016
Change. Obama promised it, and when generations look back on his presidency, this is one photo that will symbolize a promise fulfilled. Prior to a reception to celebrate Black History Month, the president and first lady welcomed 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin to the Blue Room of the White House. A video of the three dancing with joy proceeded to go viral. The image of a woman born in 1909 living to witness the first black first family was powerful, and the look of pure happiness on her face is contagious.
Obama may not have recast Washington DC as a city of cooperation, and his election clearly did not mean an end to racial bigotry in the country. But he did bring a refreshing level of inclusiveness to the highest levels of American government.
Meeting a Boy on the Rope Line, February 2016
Perhaps it's the black-and-white nature of this photo that gives the feeling that it's been ripped right out of history. In fact, it was taken during Obama's last year as president and packs an emotional punch without even seeing the president's face. Much like the 2009 photo of the young boy rubbing the president's head, this image shows how Obama's historic presidency extended the realm of possible dreams for young black Americans. The awe in the little boy's eyes and the hint of a smile on the woman's face above him demonstrate what Obama's presidency meant for people of all ages. It was taken during the White House reception for Black History Month.
Entertaining in Style, March 2016
Style and substance. That's what this photo of the Obamas at their first and only state dinner as a family — held to celebrate Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — is all about. It's likely Michelle, Malia, and Sasha will be one of the brightest spots on Obama's legacy as president, as they reflected well on him and gave Americans an example of strong and smart women to look up to.
Americans watched the Obama girls grow up before our eyes. Kate Betts, author of 2011's Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, said it's clear from photos that Michelle Obama has passed on more than her taste in clothes to her girls. "She has instilled in them a sense of her own style and why style matters." During her time as first lady, Michelle Obama's style choices communicated confidence, a modern sensibility, and approachability, values the Obama administration as a whole also projected.
Dropping the Mic, April 2016
Obama was the first — and maybe only — politician to effectively pull off a mic drop, as he did at the 2016 White House Correspondents Dinner. This photo encapsulates the president's fluency with pop culture and natural humor. But this moment also reflects an overconfidence and false sense of security many Obama supporters felt going into the November election. It's hard to imagine him going out with the same swagger now, knowing that he will be followed by President Donald Trump and that his party lost control of all branches of government.
Hugging Little Miss Flint, May 2016
With only months to go in the Obama presidency, Little Miss Flint held on to President Obama with everything she had, seeming to express the feelings of "please don't go!" his supporters felt. Fast-forward to September, and the same charismatic girl looked frightened upon meeting Donald Trump.
This photo is yet another example of the joy Obama could induce in children, but it may also symbolize the superficiality of his actions: he was able to bring happiness to Little Miss Flint, but he was unable to effectively help solve the water crisis in her city, which still plagues the community as he prepares to leave office.
Accepting Defeat, November 2016
The "after" photo. On Nov. 9, the Obama administration had to reckon with the fact that American voters elected Donald Trump as their president. Obama and the first lady had put their legacies on the line, lending enthusiastic support to Hillary Clinton's campaign and sharing with Americans just how disgusted they were with Trump.
The day following the shock election, Obama appeared at the White House to address this nation. While the president took the high road, assuring Americans that the transition would be smooth, his aides, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, couldn't hide their physical disbelief at what was happening. Many Americans who felt the same way will recognize these dejected feelings in the years to come.
Transitioning Power, November 2016
Numbers 44 and 45. Two days following Donald Trump's election, Obama welcomed to the White House the man who repeatedly questioned his Americanness and legitimacy as president. Perhaps the biggest test of the family motto — when they go low, we go high — Obama steeled himself to oversee a smooth transition of power.
While the Obama administration took action in its final days contrary to Trump's stated vision, including abstaining from a UN Security Council vote critical of Israel and expelling Russian agents for their apparent role in hacking the Democratic Party, Obama has largely accepted the election results with grace. Perhaps it's because he knows his legacy is more than the sum of its policy parts. It also includes the intangible benefits left by his example of dignity, inclusiveness, and — yes — hope.
Saying Goodbye, January 2017
"My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you," Obama said in his farewell address to the nation. "I won't stop. In fact, I will be right there with you as a citizen for all my remaining days." Obama's last speech as president once again demonstrated his ability to inspire hope with words, a skill that propelled him into the national spotlight in the first place. He told Americans uncertain about the future not to worry because "the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion."
Obama's final words were a call to action. "It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy," he said, reminding us that "change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it."
This photo of Barack, Michelle, and Malia symbolizes their return to life as private citizens. But before he left, Obama had one final request for Americans: not to believe in his ability to bring about change, but in their ability to bring about change. He's holding out hope: "Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can."