Barack Obama, the Hollow Icon
The Obama presidency gave rise to a uniquely powerful iconography that projected a sense of hope and radical possibility. But behind the president’s messianic imagery was a country unraveling at the seams — and a president who stood for nothing.
- Interview by
- Luke Savage
The presidency of Barack Obama was inarguably slicker than any in living memory. Preternaturally charismatic, charming, and photogenic, Obama was the object of an official iconography that projected a powerful and compelling vision of a transformative leader — an image meticulously crafted by White House photographer Pete Souza, whose 2017 book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, documented the official visual record of the presidency as presented to Americans.
Blair McClendon is a New York–based writer and filmmaker. In an insightful recent essay for n+1 (adapted for the Guardian), he reflected on the way Obama’s official iconography obscured the president’s failures and omissions, shrouding the realities of American politics in the process. In a wide-ranging conversation with Jacobin, McClendon discusses the politics of Obama’s image — and the blind spots about his presidency it has ultimately helped to foster.
You note in the introduction to your piece that the mystique constructed by Obama from the outset was essentially, and quite deliberately, a messianic one. What was that mystique?
Even though I say in the piece that it’s not actually that interesting a photograph — and this isn’t me getting my shots in on Souza, because, as a photographer, he’s talented — there’s this photo of Obama and the statue of Martin Luther King Jr.
I think Obama presented himself as messianic, not in the way that Martin Luther King actually was, but in the way that King is seen now — i.e., the very cherry-picked, “King really wanted us not to judge each other by the color of our skin.” So, now he’s this sort of national saint (even though everybody hates black people who are actually trying to do the same thing).
And I think that photo of them looking off in the same direction while Obama is silhouetted, and King is lit so well, is ultimately the former trying to elevate himself into the same national saint image. In some ways, it’s what Obama had to do. I don’t really know how else you run for president as a black person, other than saying, “I am revolutionary and also not at all.” Because the faux-revolutionary nature of it is how you’re going to get the Democrats on your side. But, on the other side, you need this countervailing force to what he couldn’t say then, which is the reality that a lot of people are spooked by the idea of a black president.
So he had to toe this line. And I guess what I meant by “messianic” wasn’t exactly messianic for black people, but for America as a whole: this would-be promised land he was delivering everybody to, which was going to be a place where all of the sins were purged through his presidency.
I think it was quite useful for the Right as well, because you had this figure who was fundamentally not a black radical — he was not particularly invested in what we actually do to “redeem the country,” in the language of more liberal blacks.
What he was invested in was this idea that you could have a pluralistic, capitalist, liberal democracy that, somehow in the course of his presidency (and the inevitable Hillary Clinton presidency), would slowly move closer and closer to a perfect union. I think what he was particularly good at, and what Souza helped create, was projecting a very good image that toed the line between being a messiah for black liberation and being one for America.
What he was really good at (and why, ultimately, I don’t think he’ll be surpassed as a politician in our lifetimes) was getting people who recognized antagonisms that were not reducible to appear as though they had been ironed out. So you had, for a brief moment, somebody who was projecting himself as a massive, progressive leap forward for the country and also for black people. And if you were invested a lot in that image, you didn’t really have to ask yourself too much. Is it possible to do both of those things at the same time? One of the things that I find most striking about this last decade of black activism and black uprisings is how frequently it elided, compared to what happened when Donald Trump was in power, that this started under Obama — and that this wave of uprisings began under the person who was, in theory, supposed to be that messiah figure.
The thing I always think about again and again is his saying he doesn’t want to appear as though he’s putting a finger on the scales one way or the other — which is exactly the kind of proceduralist argument you’d expect from a president. But it also was just one of those things that, I think, he’d admit now was patently ridiculous. The president obviously has a finger on the scales one way or the other, because he’s the president of the country. And, as the first black president, he was always going to be perceived as having his finger on the scales in the other direction.
There’s a tension here that’s like what’s happening now in the economic sphere, where all of the Democrats have to say that what happened in 2008 was a mistake, but they can’t say who did it, because Obama is personally popular (even though everybody is now coming around to the idea that we shouldn’t ever do what he did again). I think that’s also sort of true about the tension that has happened in the last decade in black politics, which is that the most personally popular black politician is, in fact, not on the side of the movement that has made black politics a pressing question again.
You write that Souza’s 2017 book, An Intimate Portrait, “reveals more through its absences” than what’s included. What did Souza leave out?
I mean, it’s a lovely book. These aren’t really my cup of tea — coffee-table books about presidents. But again, I think Souza is good at what he does, and Obama’s very photogenic, so it’s a nice object. It’s trying to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the major moments in Obama’s presidency (Obama even wrote the foreword), and that’s a way for the White House operation to narrate its own story of what happened over those eight years back to the world.
What’s most fascinating is that it can’t really include the fact that cities were on fire during this time and during this presidency. There’s an image of him in Martha’s Vineyard huddled with (I believe) Eric Holder, and they’re working on the speech he’s got to give about Ferguson. There’s also that photo of the activists who visited with him at the White House (and pretty much all later said they regretted it), and those two pictures are pretty much the only acknowledgment that all of this happened.
I think there are two great silences that occur in talking about Obama: one about the wars abroad that he continued, and the other about the need many have to disconnect his presidency from why these uprisings happened under him. The president is obviously not in charge of a suburb in St. Louis or a particular part of Baltimore, but I do think there was a relationship between his being in power and what was happening in the streets. And it was a relationship that I think people didn’t really want to acknowledge — which, again, is fascinating, because once you read what those activists said after they left the White House. . . They left knowing he wasn’t prepared to do anything and was talking only about maybe changing the regulations in how military equipment would be sent to the police. I think that silence would make more sense if that movement hadn’t been more successful.
If you were to talk about the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency, even though the riots were much more intense, then never mentioned that cities went up in flames, I would think that you’re hiding something. I just don’t know how you talk about the years 2012–2016 and not observe that what happened started with protests over Trayvon Martin and then, by 2015, Baltimore was burning. There was a distinct escalation in black street politics in that period, and they weren’t really finding redress in a government that was, in theory, predisposed to at least somewhat benefit them in the ways it could. I think that that silence leads to a lot of bad analysis about what’s happened in the last decade, which is that there was a distinct escalation.
During the nationwide riots and protests last year, in both liberal and leftist analysis, there was often a split where everyone asked, “What do we do with the working class, and what do we do about black people being angry?” My question over the last decade has been: “Why is it repeatedly young black people who are the only ones capable of taking to the streets in any serious way for a prolonged period?” I think there’s a way to answer that where you just think very hard about what’s happening in those conditions, but then you start actually asking, who are these black people? Where do they live? Are they the people, myself included, who are making movies? No, instead you’re talking frequently about working-class black populations. And the reason you have to start under Obama and think very hard about what happened in that period is that there was an initial promise that something would happen: there was going to be an investigation into Ferguson. And, when that investigation happened, we learned that the police harassed black people there on a regular basis and that there was a kind of extractive model funding policing in Ferguson. I think that that investigation taught the rest of the country something, but I’m not so sure it taught anyone in Ferguson anything. I’m sure, if you had bothered to ask them, they would have told you the police stop them all the time. But, because of this inability to understand that Obama (in the most generous reading) failed to deal with the situation, you suddenly got a version of what frequently happens with black uprisings: everyone has to ask, every single time, “Where did this come from?” It’s coming out of nowhere. Oh my gosh!
If you look at what happened last year, there were certainly precipitating factors. Obviously, there was a pandemic and people were stuck indoors, there was a massive recession that was ongoing, and so on. All of those things, I think, led to it being a bigger conflagration than it would otherwise have been. But you ultimately have to think about eight years of increasing militancy and not just about what had been happening under Trump that led to that moment. If you go from a messianic figure who does not address the situation to an obviously villainous one who is also not going to address the situation, you ultimately have two choices: one is to go home, and the other is to ratchet up what’s happening.
The image from Obama’s presidency you wrote that you’ve never been able to shake isn’t an official photograph: instead, it’s a black-and-white photo of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki — a sixteen-year-old from Denver who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen, where he’d gone to look for his father. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said, in response to the killing, “He should have [had] a far more responsible father.” Of all the images from Obama’s presidency, why has this one stayed with you?
Like I said in the piece, some of it is purely emotional. I was about twenty at the time of his death, and he was a few years younger than me. I was young and opposed to the wars, and I was opposed to Obama’s presidency and felt all of these things that a good college leftist kid feels. But, as I wrote in the piece, for better and for worse — and mostly for worse — I’m as American as everyone else. As a result, most of the news I get is filtered through that — and this was a kid who grew up not far from me (I’m from California, and he was from Colorado). I think I identified with the fact that he was looking for someone. So, a lot of it, to be honest, was a strictly emotional thing.
But it was also a political thing. I was deeply confused about why no one particularly cared that they had executed a kid. By that point in time, I had a pretty good understanding that nobody really cared about what we were doing to people who weren’t Americans. But, as hard as it is to believe or remember, a big part of the end of George W. Bush’s presidency was concerned with overreach against Americans, with warrantless wiretapping and all those things. To my mind, you can’t really have greater overreach against your citizens than executing them without recourse.
There was also an incipient sense of solidarity I had with the bubbling activism around black people who were being executed in broad daylight — and then there was this other American kid, who had been wandering around Yemen looking for his dad and had been killed in broad daylight. There’s really no recourse in either case. I don’t want to overstate the link, because what Yemen was experiencing and has continued to experience is, on many levels, worse than what’s happening here. It’s open warfare. But I think, at the time, I understood these things as being connected on a gut level, because it turned out you could be a kid in some [other] place and the United States government could kill you.
As I wrote in the piece, what was most galling to me about Obama’s presidency, and one of the things he was most successful at, was presenting himself as a dad. I think all the time about his response to Trayvon Martin’s killing, which went everywhere immediately, because it was so moving for him to say, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” It’s a beautiful line, and a stunning one to hear from the president. But you know, seeing Abdulrahman, and seeing how his death was just sort of brushed off, ultimately showed the limits of that — because Abdulrahman wouldn’t look like his son. So, the kid who’s killed and whom Obama can speak about eloquently — he regrets his death and says, “He would look like my son,” and he understands the pain of his family, and years later Trayvon’s image is put up at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). And suddenly his death becomes a part of the Democratic story. When it came to Abdulrahman, there just had to be silence, because his killing was part of a secret war (even though it wasn’t really a secret).
What hung with me about him, and what still does, beyond my sadness over his death, was that, to me, the incident showed the limits of a politics that claimed black people would redeem the nation. You wind up with dead kids in some other country and black people having to be silent about it, because now they think they have to pick between an image of black excellence (being president is as excellent as you can be in this country) and acknowledgment of the body count in other countries. I don’t think I would have been perhaps as eloquent in stating it then, but whenever I hear those phrases, and whenever I hear the Civil Rights Movement (or pretty much any movement that’s concerned with black liberation) being marshaled into saving America, I just wish people would follow through and ask what happens to everywhere else when you “save America.”
Because if you have some fealty to the idea that black people should be free, and you live in a country that likes to talk about freedom a lot, you can conceive of that freedom in two ways: one is the freedom that’s bound up in everybody’s, where you now have some responsibility to act not only for your own freedom but also for the freedom of those your country is impinging on and killing and invading. The other is a quintessentially American sense of freedom, which is bound up specifically in being American. To be rendered a second-class citizen is obviously a grave injustice. Whenever I think about Abdulrahman and the silence the Obama presidency demanded around him and people like him, I end up wishing more thinkers and writers would ask what it means to be a first-class citizen in a country that’s also an empire. Like, have you achieved something, or have you just become complicit in something else?
You mention a 2008 essay by George Packer, in which he wrote: “Obama is a black candidate who can tell Americans of all races to move beyond race.” This was, in many ways, a key part of Obama’s own political project. You write, though, that, in this image of a post-racial nation, “Post-racial 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.” There’s obviously a lot to unpack there, but how would you say Souza’s photos represent this conception of a post-racial nation?
I think a big part of it is that Obama does represent something that, in a boring and literal way, is undeniably true: this country had never had a black president. This is the root of the argument about representation: if there is somebody who is powerful and respected in the country, although everyone hates politicians, it’s the president — and Obama looked good in these photos. He and his family looked very cool. They always looked like they were having fun, even when they were serious. The reason I recalled JFK in the piece is that that’s who he most looked like. He looks like he’s in Camelot. He looks good in a tux. He looks good in a suit.
And you’ve heard, for a long time, from white liberals and black conservatives and black liberals, that what’s necessary is for black people to see themselves in positions of power. That’s what I wrote about in the section about the little kid that everybody finds very moving, where he’s rubbing Barack Obama’s head because he wants to see if his hair is just like his. This is one method of creating a post-racial utopia: it’s basically trickle-down liberation. If a black person, so the argument goes, can achieve the highest office in the land and look this good, then the belief is that it will trickle down. Which, to me, as much as people say that this is about uplift for black people and our understanding of ourselves and what we can achieve, has always really been addressed to white people. Because, if white people see that a black person can, in fact, occupy the office and that things don’t go to hell when a black person is in charge, then perhaps some of their antipathies will lessen.
I do happen to think things went to hell under Obama, but I think there’s a way you can read things otherwise — mainly if you’re silent about cities being on fire. There’s another potential way to read it, which is that you’ll gain liberation through seeing these photos and from seeing this image of the black elite projected every day. There was a black elite under Obama in a way that there had never really been before. Jay-Z and Beyoncé were elite before Barack Obama, but there’s a different game being played when they’re frequently visiting the White House and Jay-Z is rapping about having Obama’s cell phone number. At that point, you’re making a national argument that the black elite is the elite.
The problem with that is that it’s very hard to connect it to any real sense of redress for what’s happening for most black people. I’m quite deeply wary of this when I’m in certain rooms, and people expect me to have something to say that represents all black people. I mean, I make movies and went to a private school, and I have nothing to tell them about what’s going on other than what I know from talking to people and reading.
There’s two ways you can address what’s happening now to black people. One is expressed in the belief that there is something about seeing black people that causes X, Y, or Z to happen — and if that’s true, then the representation argument is correct. You need to see black people in the White House, you need to see them in tuxes, you need to see them on billboards, and on Wall Street, or whatever. But if what you’re actually talking about is capital, land, and premature death, then you’re getting at the heart of whether or not black people can be folded into the national project. I’m not so certain they can be, and I don’t really think they should be.
When it comes to how you get to a post-racial society, there are — to be a bit vulgar about it — two paths you can walk. One is the Paul Gilroy route, which involves the premise that racism precedes race. That being the case, in order to find liberation, you have to go through a winding struggle, and on the other side, perhaps there isn’t race in any way that’s recognizable to us now. But between here and there is a revolution. The other route, which I think Obama is perhaps the best proponent of, is that through the achievements of a handful of black elites and some massive shift in everybody’s psyche, you wind up in a place where America can reconcile all of these antagonisms.
I think Obama came probably as close as you can come to demonstrating whether that will work, and there probably are lots of people whose minds were changed. I also think the tail end of his presidency was marked by white nationalists marching in the streets and black people setting cities on fire. Part of why I was very interested in the visual representation of his presidency is that I think that’s where he was at his best. He was very good in front of the camera. But also because this ultimately shows the failure and limits of this kind of representation, whether it winds up being on-screen or in his books or whatever. It can’t really change the fact that we’re talking about violence. We’re not really talking about how certain images make every individual in the country feel.
The implication of that sort of black excellence thing is that, if we see Obama in the White House, then we can rise out of the ghetto — something that depends on a belief that people are in the ghetto by choice, as opposed to somebody keeping them there. So, by the end of his presidency (even before it became clear who was succeeding him), nobody had really come to terms with the fact that a black elite couldn’t seem to do anything to stop working-class black people from marching and rioting. I think he got what he wanted, and what a lot of people wanted, which was a black elite that became the elite. But that being the case, there’s not much they can say back to the people who are in the streets.