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Arts Jacob Heilbrunn US Politics

Obama’s drab portrait is a fitting metaphor for his presidency

February 12, 2018

5:30 PM

12 February 2018

5:30 PM

Has Barack Obama become a flower child? His new presidential portrait, which is over seven feet high, depicts him on a chair staring ahead somewhat pensively as he’s framed by various flowers that reference Kenya, Hawaii and Chicago. It’s a fitting backdrop to a president who not only embodied the multi-cultural aspirations of America, but also wanted to be seen as a meditative fellow. His adversaries may well conclude that the flowers out him as what they viewed him as all along—a not-so-closet leftist. Meanwhile, his wife Michelle looks serene in a capacious, flowing gown that drapes to the floor.

The question hovering over the portraits, though, is whether they were worth the bother. They aren’t anodyne—the heroic mode that Donald Trump favours is nowhere in evidence. But there isn’t anything avant-garde about them either. Much like the Obama presidency, they appear to offer more change than they actually do. For my money, Obama should have gone in a truly original direction—commission his predecessor George W. Bush to have a go at it. Bush has developed a real interest in painting and even displayed some skill and imagination that has confounded his myriad detractors. Inviting Bush to carry out the portraits would have signalled a further truce between the two men, a sign that there can be comity between divergent political camps rather than perpetual feuding. Besides, I rather suspect that Bush and Obama would enjoy spending some time together taking a few shots at the current occupant of the presidency.

Still, it is probably best not to invest the portraits with too much significance. Already the unveiling of the portraits has given rise to grave analysis among the commentariat about what it all means. The New York Times is fretting that:

‘It doesn’t take #BlackLivesMatter consciousness to see the significance of this racial lineup within the national story as told by the Portrait Gallery. Some of the earliest presidents represented — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — were slaveholders; Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandparents were slaves. And today we’re seeing more and more evidence that the social gains of the civil rights, and Black Power, and Obama eras are, with a vengeance, being rolled back.’

But are they? Or is Trump’s presidency in fact epiphenomenal? By the time Trump’s portrait is unveiled, it will become clear whether he’s really had a deep impact upon the country. Certainly it would be a first for him if he looks as ruminative about his tenure as Obama.

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