With President Obama’s approval rating at an all-time low, you might think this week represents the nadir of his White House tenure. Maybe not! The Internet still loves him, or at least the part of the Internet population that produces memes. Obama is the first president to hold office during the full flowering of meme culture, and the anonymous Web wags who make animated GIFs and image macros have been surprisingly kind to him. Why does Obama have such natural Internet appeal?
He’s not exploitable. An early example of a political meme was the “ Bush or Chimp?” site, though the 43rd president left office before the Internet had attained peak mockery power. Even so, the George Bush middle finger picture continues to be highly “exploitable”—the term of art for an image that’s easy to caption or Photoshop, such as the wonderful bubble girl. Political memes went mainstream during the long primary fight between Hillary and Obama. Hillary, unfortunately, was prone to making the sorts of crazy faces that lend themselves to memes—for example, “ Karaoke Night in Hell” and “Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies.” (Chelsea has a similar talent.)
Obama, meanwhile, enjoyed the virtual attentions of Obama Girl, whose YouTube video garnered millions of views and augmented his status as a sex symbol. Candidate Obama’s youth, good looks, and appeal to college-age voters also did much to prevent him from becoming an Internet punching bag. (Though there was racist stuff around if you looked.) The president has another talent that’s enormously helpful online: He’s a graceful guy, rarely getting photographed in an awkward body position or with an exploitable expression on his face. John McCain was the opposite:
Obama also benefits from his blackness and perceived coolness. Successful memes often approach sensitive subjects, like race, but stop short of being offensive. Many of the positive memes surrounding Obama emphasize his decisive, almost Shaft-like authority. Here’s an example that surfaced during the election:
This aspect of Obama’s online profile became even more prominent with the Osama Bin Laden raid—a mission that appealed to the Internet both for its success and the way it seemed ported straight out of a video game.
It’s tempting to take a further leap and assume that Obama’s Internet appeal translates into re-electability, that it’s some kind of below-the-radar indicator of his popularity. The meme auteur Jonah Peretti set me straight: “Republicans lack the creativity and sense of humor required to make a funny meme,” he wrote me. “And the pot-smoking, lefty hipsters who make the best memes tend to think Obama is a pretty cool dude.” So there it is: Obama gets a free pass on the Internet because the people who make memes are his kind of people.
Peretti was half-joking, though I took him up on the challenge to find Republican memes. There are not as many examples, true, but the few that exist demonstrate the potential power of a meme as a political tool:
A catchy meme combines word and image to encapsulate a feeling that can be passed around like a membership badge. This Rick Perry GIF nails the swagger of the Texas governor; your call on whether it makes him look slick or like kind of a prick. A sharp meme can also inflict real damage—a “macaca moment” in miniature. Macaca was the term that Virginia Sen. George Allen used to refer to an Indian-American man who was filming him for his opponent, Jim Webb. Allen’s unthinking verbal blunder was uploaded to YouTube, and the incident submarined his campaign. (See Slate’s “ George Allen Insult Generator.”)
The 2012 election may be when meme culture becomes more than just something you chuckle at on Buzzfeed. The recent crazy-eyed Michele Bachmann Newsweek cover shows how the meme spirit can influence the mainstream. Tina Brown chose to run the unflattering photo that’s usually left on the cutting room floor. And the gambit worked: The exploitable, odd photo got our attention.
The meme spirit will give political consultants fits because it’s so unpredictable—Obama picking up a snowball becomes Obama bullying an adorable cat. Though you can also see the other side: A candidate who cleverly plays to the meme makers enhances his or her image. Obama had to know what was going to happen when he picked up a lightsaber outside the White House—a thousand Jedi posters bloomed. But memes have traditionally proven difficult to engineer. The best strategy is to surf the wave as it’s forming, as Obama’s campaign did with the Shepard Fairey “ Hope” poster.
It remains to be seen whether the animated gif and the image macro will become the new campaign button. My advice to candidates running for office: Keep an intern on staff who knows his or her way around Photoshop. You never know when an Internet trifle might be just the thing to nudge your image in a new direction: