From Kennedy to Obama, the strategy of showing U.S. presidents as powerful, yet ordinary men is recycled

By tradition, American presidents make themselves inconspicuous when they leave the White House. Unlike Brazilians, American presidents do not interfere with their successor’s administration and do not seek public office, but disappear from politics. Barack Obama fulfilled this rite of passage, but there is early nostalgia for his figure everywhere. His image has not disappeared from public view – in part due to the help of his successor, Donald Trump. We see Obama in friendly situations all the time, which differs from Trump’s grimace.

Part of this confirmation of Obama’s “nice guy” presidential image comes from Pete Souza’s work. Souza was the chief official White House photographer for eight years and is known for portraying Obama with a less formal attitude, capturing the first African-American president not only in his role as the world’s most powerful leader, but also in ordinary events, such as walking with his daughters, dancing with his wife, Michelle, or playing with babies. It’s an iconography that opens space to the informal, breaking from the domain of political meeting images and presenting the mighty one in situations that take place outside of his responsibilities.

This same type of narrative was used in portraying John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961-1963.) Coincidentally, new photos of Kennedy in the 1960s were recently released by his official photographer, Jacques Lowe (1930-2001). If Obama was the first African-American president, Kennedy was the youngest American president – also, he was rich and he and his wife Jacqueline made a nice couple. Who doesn’t know the cute picture of John-John playing under his father’s work desk at the Oval Office? (Photo by Stanley Tretick) Or of John-John posing as an adult, saluting his father’s funeral procession? Or the photo of the first lady, Jacqueline, playing with her children? Lowe portrayed Kennedy as a human president, not as an unbreakable leader; a representation that brought him closer to the people, and which created intimacy and acceptance. Lowe’s iconography of Kennedy is the same as Souza’s iconography of Obama, but 50 years later.

These images are not innocent. Different ideologies have used photography as an instrument to broadcast ideas and subsequently develop and manipulate public opinion, especially as technological advances have enabled the widespread dissemination of images in the media. When we talk about official photography, i.e., photos taken to give a government some visibility, we are also talking about an advertising photo, particularly in politics. The aesthetics are close to a journalistic picture and that is why it “deceives” us. We do not notice it as publicity but as a factual narrative.

It is necessary to reflect that when we create a representation which most people will recognize as their president, we are referring to the construction of memory. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963 while in office, entered the popular imagination as a modern president, caring father and victim. Publicly, his government took second place. Obama’s cool image, the first president to use social media, improves the more Trump’s image displeases. Much of the public image of Kennedy and Obama comes from fragments set in our minds, pieces that were torn from political moments, poses in front of a camera or sought by the aiming eyes of Jacques Lowe and Pete Souza.