Since the election, former White House photographer Pete Souza has been flooding Instagram with postcards from the presidency of Barack Obama. The timing of each upload is deliberate, designed to contrast the former POTUS’s grace and poise with the current one’s flailing malice. Souza’s Instagram, which now has about 1.5 million followers, feels like a magic mirror swimming with images from a brighter past.
After President Donald Trump gave a keynote speech at the Boy Scouts’ jamboree only to gloat about election night 2016, Souza unearthed a photo of Obama shaking the hand of an awed kid in uniform. “I can assure you, POTUS was not telling this Cub Scout and the Boy Scouts who followed about his Electoral College victory,” he wrote.
And when @RealDonaldTrump publicly humiliated Attorney General Jeff Sessions by condemning his “weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” Souza harkened back to a lost age of loyalty and brotherhood. He offered a soothing image of Obama and Eric Holder, side by side, their hands over their hearts.
The comments were illustrative. “I felt so safe and secure when these two honorable, brilliant men were in charge! MAKE OBAMA PRESIDENT AGAIN!” replied one user. “I can’t stop laughing your post give me life,” said another. Souza’s followers decked the picture in leis of approving emojis.
Souza’s photographic burns have been energetically documented by a liberal press hungry for resistance heroes. Take the time Trump tweeted that he had seen MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski “bleeding badly from a face-lift” after she criticized him on air, and Souza responded by quietly showcasing five snapshots of President Obama chatting with, seeking counsel from, hugging, and laughing with women—a series he titled “Respect for women.”
This led to an efflorescence of articles on how Souza “trolls” Trump, pieces that mined the photojournalist’s feed for evidence of Obama’s superior handling of James Comey, Vladimir Putin, and Pope Francis. When Trump’s health care bill foundered, Souza danced on its grave with an image of 44 “convincing wavering Democrats” to vote for the Affordable Care Act. (“My president forever!” chorused the commenters.) “The fact that he knew the details of the bill itself and the intricacies of health care policy made his calls more effective and thus more successful,” Souza observed in the caption, twisting the knife.
Another snap showed Obama performing his signature fist bump down a line of Americans in medical scrubs. “Fighting for a good cause: healthcare,” Souza glossed. As staged as the photo-op must have been, it suggested a relaxed POTUS going off-script to connect with grateful constituents. The picture marked a break from the current White House’s hodgepodge of awkward iPhone selfies and stilted portraits. Looking at it was meant to be at once restorative and heartbreaking, like the shimmering illusion of an oasis after you’ve been crawling through the desert for days.
Which is, of course, the main thing Souza’s Instagram feed promises: shade. “I can’t see the sun because the shade here is too much,” one user cackled in the comments, referring to an image in which Obama towers over Putin in a meeting that (ahem) “was disclosed to the press.”
With Trump in office, waited on by handmaidens-from-hell Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, the past often feels like an alternative universe. Souza sets out to reacquaint us with that vanished world, where norms obtained and men were men and words had meaning—where the sun rose on the shrines of our ancestors and six virgins ceaselessly guarded the vestal flame. It is important to remember what “presidential” looks like, on the off-chance that civilization survives Trump and we have the opportunity to swap him out with someone more qualified. It is crucial to recall the Platonic endurance of certain codes of political behavior, codes that transcend the swamp, the wall, the ban, the Mooch, and the rest of the brutish nouns that are currently governing our discourse. (Just kidding, the Mooch is now out. Even when not compared to a timeless photograph, this administration inverts itself faster than a yoga master.)
But it’s unclear how useful such nostalgia might prove to a party scrambling for a comeback. Though Souza’s glowing mementos barely qualify as escapism—the comparison with Trumpland feels too explicit—they keep our eyes on the idealized days of yore. And in an age in which the surest path to likes and RTs is to flatter the biases of fellow denizens of your partisan bubble, the former White House documentarian has fashioned himself as a scratcher of masochistic itches and a purveyor of exquisitely doomed self-congratulation. Obama is gone, but Souza remains, brandishing his onetime access like a cobwebbed candelabra. He has become an emblem of an unseemly modern phenomenon: resistance thirst.
There is a general tendency on the left these days to loudly love the most obvious love objects and hate the most conspicuous hate objects. Souza’s tender visual valentines to Obama feel like a particularly facile instance of this trend. They illustrate how easy it is for liberals to self-soothe by performing our opposition, ascending up our own butts in search of an “amen.”
To spend time with Souza’s Instagram account is to wallow in deliciously sharp sorrow. For every commenter rejoicing at “tea” or “shade,” there are two more claiming to be “destroyed” or “broken” by reminders of the president we had. I spent an afternoon Slacking Souza-caption images of Obama back and forth with my colleagues. “This one killed me,” said one editor, citing a picture of 44 beaming at a quizzical-looking child. A different co-worker confessed that, when she saw the snap of a young child listening to the former POTUS’s heart with a stethoscope, “I got a little choked up.”
What does it avail us to sit around weeping over paradise lost? After a while, Aeneas had to buck up, accept that Troy was sacked, and found Rome. Adam and Eve had to stop waiting for ripe dates to fall into their mouths and start farming. If only Captain Ahab had Gotten Over It, Herman Melville could have whiled away his mature years fishing serenely on the Hudson instead of writing Moby-Dick. There’s something queasy-making about the way this feed beatifies Barack Obama into Yankee King Arthur. Like Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren, he has become an avatar for left-wing hopes and dreams, a leader whose apotheosis denies us the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.
Just look at one recent throwback posted to Souza’s Instagram account. This image depicted Obama ordering a meal at Chipotle, his forearm dangling over the glass panel separating burrito ingredients from customers. “Remember this scandal from 2014?” Souza captioned the picture. “This was my fault and I’m the only one to blame. If I hadn’t posted this photograph, no one would have ever known he reached over the sneeze guard at Chipotle.”
What a transgression! Wink wink. Predictably, the post stirred up laments for the days in which the most pressing White House outrage was a sitting president breaching the sneeze guard at a fast food restaurant. (Obama would not be the last politician compromised by an inappropriate dalliance with fake Mexican food.) Yet this cheerful history forgets Obama’s real flaws and missteps—his occasional ineffectiveness, the unauthorized drone strikes that killed hundreds of civilians. Perhaps Obama is becoming, for the left, what Ronald Reagan represented to the right—a telegenic figure, revered after the fact, who could personify the best and truest instincts of the party. The guy who wore his authority so kindly and graciously he could make babies explode with happiness. (We were all that baby, once.)
The post that may best crystallize Souza’s resistance thirst is a photograph, uploaded July 22, of Obama behind the wheel of a luxury car. “I wish this was a time machine,” Souza captioned his image. “Unfortunately that’s Robert Gibbs on the right not ‘Doc.’ ”
The picture could not be more different from the Trump shot it evokes: the current U.S. president, face contorted maniacally, pretending to drive a truck on the White House lawn. Though it looks like a candid, Souza’s snap is elegantly framed and beautifully lit; you can smell the buttery leather of the upholstery and feel the crisp press of the men’s suits. Obama appears calm and in command. Gibbs seems to be smiling. And there’s that word wish peeking out of the caption.
With his Instagram, Souza has built a peaceful sanctuary, a space in which the left can ignore Trump and dream its old government back to life. But the type of fantasy he peddles evaporates the second you close the window. Once you’ve decided to live in the real world, there’s only so much you can do with a magic mirror that shows you what you want to see instead of what’s really there.