Envisioning President Barack Obama

Myrtle Andrews

Major Professor: Alison Landsberg, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Michele Greet, Denise Albanese

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 30, 2019, 01:30 PM to 03:30 PM


In this dissertation, I analyze visual images that emerged from the historic moment of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for President of the United States of America. The election of 2008 was contentious and saw a seemingly ubiquitous visual presence of the figure of Obama. The candidate was rendered in numerous formats in traditional forms of mass media such as newspapers, magazines, and television, alongside new and emerging digital communication technologies. Obama’s candidacy brought about innovative uses of images by the campaign, media, artists, and voters. As a black candidate, Obama's race presented new predicaments for representation in American presidential politics. In 2008, Obama made history by becoming a black figure that the nation could collectively envision as president.

In this project, I use the term national “imaginary” to refer to the story the nation tells itself about itself. The United States is built up in the minds of people upon historic figures, legends, and symbols. By engaging the institution of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, I show that presidential portraiture has served to construct the ideal citizen as white and male. The iconic red, white, and blue Obama Hope image from the 2008 election pictured Obama as American and presidential. Through a visual analysis of three contemporary photographic projects that emerged from the moment of the 2008 election, I show that there was an urgent necessity for photographers to document the collective spirit of the moment while maintaining a critical eye on U.S. history. Finally, I analyze images posted on Twitter with the hashtag #Obama as a microcosm of the collective consciousness about the candidate on election day. These social media images demonstrate a range of views – from ardent support to racially-motivated opposition.

Elections are routine occurrences in the democratic structure of the country when policies and politicians who represent the people are voted upon. In addition to political representation, elections provide a battleground upon which national cultural values are debated and visualized. The historic backdrop of the election of Obama is the assumption of whiteness as a prerequisite for American citizenship. I argue that there was an urgent need to construct an image of the black presidential candidate in the American imaginary during the 2008 election. This project provides a background for thinking about the visual dynamics of campaigns that can arm viewers and voters with tools to decipher the numerous meanings of images in future U.S. elections.