This morning my very conservative local newspaper used the term "vilified" in a headline describing the way people on the ground in Haiti are supposedly feeling about the U.S.'s approach there. Fair or not, amid increasing suggestions that aid is not making it to the folks who need it fast enough, I thought it might be worth looking at a very different set of images than the ones we've been seeing from Haiti itself.
In recent days, the White House Flickr photostream has posted three Haiti-related images of President Obama. Presumably these are meant to illustrate that (unlike our previous president after Katrina) Obama is top of the situation. One (top) features Obama in a meeting in the White House situation room, while the other two depict him on the phone with U.S Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten and Haitian president Rene Preval (middle and bottom, respectively). I find the middle picture compelling for the way that Childe Hassam's "Avenue in the Rain" seems to be coming out of Obama's mouth like a talk bubble in a cartoon; perhaps a visualization of Obama's verbalization of American commitment to Haiti?
Taken together, though, these images implicitly illustrate a fundamental rhetorical problem when picturing certain kinds of presidential leadership: how do you picture your president as an active leader when the very act of acting requires him to do really important but visually unexciting things? (In writing of this as a problem, by the way, I don't mean to suggest that it's in any way remotely equivalent to the very real nightmare being lived in Haiti as I write this).
Put another way, what do viewers see when they look at these images? Do they see a president actively leading? Do they see the hard, slow work of government in action? Or do they see someone phoning it in?
Image credits: All photos by Pete Souza, White House photographer, Flickr photostream.