This photograph matters.
Presidential portraits are hung in the 294 U.S. embassies around the world as well as all federal government buildings across the country. The photo chosen ends up symbolizing the president in absentia, defining both a man and a country.
The first Obama presidential portrait was, well, kind of lame. Somber, yes, but not exactly confidence inspiring. Part of the trick of presidential leadership is projecting optimism and strength—something iconic presidents like Reagan and FDR well understood. Which is why President Reagan was offering a broad grin in his official portrait at the height of the Cold War.
Awkward half smiles, with lips pursed, just don’t do the job. And a lot of first-term portraits have a strange freshman-year, scrubbed look about them—Bill Clinton’s first term portrait in particular.
The new Obama portrait is a decided break from the first round. After a decisive re-election, he now fully occupies the Oval Office, with a broad grin and arms folded in front of the Resolute desk. Yes, his hair is grayer than four years ago. But otherwise the face looks almost younger, spared the lines that are evident in the previous close up. Freed from the confines of the traditional headshot, the President stands waist-up, flanked by two flags.
The framing is far from accidental; it is the handiwork of the official chief White House photographer, Pete Souza. This is the New Bedford, Massachusetts, native’s second tour at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave; he was Reagan’s official photographer in that storied second term. But Souza has developed real rapport with Obama, following his rise from the Senate to the White House as a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. The man behind the camera has become something of a silent celebrity himself as the subject of a National Geographic documentary, “The President’s Photographer.” This shot contains all Souza has learned about the presidential image.
It is a portrait of optimism and strength, projecting American power outward for the 21st century. It reflects the lessons learned from Obama’s first term – this is not the time for half-measures, subject to the narrow confines of past traditions. And it will quickly become the definitive single portrait of his presidency.