Five Presidents: A picture tells a story

 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)










(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the photographs (the one above and the one below) the various presidents provide signals of their status. Although no analysis is definitive since the context and dynamic need to be consider, this photograph captures a unique event that is worthy of detailed analysis. As the photograph is static, we need a cluster of signals, not the single or individual signals that each president reveals to understand what individual elements mean as a whole.

The signals that reveal the most about the subjects are those that are ones they control with intent, which in turn reflects what they think. The main sources of signals within the picture are Hands, Head, Position, and Clothing. Clothing is included since it represents a conscious choice, the president has to dress for a special occasion and that reflects thought and intent. If the picture contained their feet, we could consider that signal as well since how they place their feet will reveal something about their mental and emotional state. If we had a video showing the presidents shaking their feet or crossing their legs, it would provide us further insights into their emotional state and their thinking.  We start with the hands.


Which man is not yet president? Barack Obama’s crossed hands show a defensive posture that suggests he is ill at ease as he is in the presence of 4 former presidents and the current president. One explanation is that he is the only one not to occupy the Oval Office and experienced its status and cost. By contrast, George W. Bush has his hands at his sides and his stance, at the centre of the group, shows he is confident and in charge. This is his office. By contrast, Bill Clinton’s hands are hidden behind his back which suggests control and a false sense of openness. He is holding something back, which may be the fact that his wife is still in government and he has to watch his step. George H. Bush shows his relaxed and confident pose with his hands in his pockets. After all, he was president and his son is president, which would be reason enough to provide him with confidence since it is a rare feat. Jimmy Carter looks relaxed as well with his hands at his side. His pose seems similar to George W Bush’s as it reflects someone comfortable in his position. Of the presidents, he is the most outspoken and distant from the main group, which is perhaps reflected in his pose apart from the main group. He may indicate that he is comfortable with his status and is not connected to the presidents who are active political operates. His hands show he is relaxed in this mode. We have to consider that another explanation for Obama’s defensive posture may be that he is uncomfortable being positioned next to George H and George W Bush and he does not yet have the status to dictate where he wants to stand.


Presidents are professional politicians who know that when they are in the spotlight they have to control their physical and emotional behaviour. Their heads reveal much more because they are controlling how the rest of their body moves. All the men are looking forward to the camera(s) even though George W Bush has a different focus point in that moment. George H. Bush, who is on the end, has his head slightly tilted towards Barack Obama who is on his left and Jimmy Carter, on the other end, has his head slightly tilted towards Bill Clinton who is on his right. The ends are tilting to the middle which suggests a basic consensus of the group towards the incumbent President. Three head positions that are noticeable in the photo. Two are minor and one that is a major significance. The first is that Bill Clinton’s head does not tilt either towards Bush or Carter as if he is separate from either man. George H. Bush’s head tilts slightly towards Barack Obama. The major issue is how far Barack Obama’s head tilts towards George H. Bush. The difference is significant since it is whether it is away from George W or if it is towards George H. The tilt towards George H may reflects perhaps an unconscious identification Obama may have with George H. Bush as the oldest male. One could go further to suggest an unconscious father figure association. What this may reveal is that Obama, who was raised by his grandparents, may link George W to that memory or experience.


The presidents appear to be ordered from left to right, with George W Bush, the incumbent president, at the centre according to their political position. Carter on the left, with Clinton to his right, George W Bush in the centre and George H. Bush is farthest to right. What is of interest is that Obama is situated between George H. Bush and George W. Bush. Does this reflect his political inclinations or the need to fit within the hierarchy of Bush father and Bush son. It may also indicate that as George W’s successor he is literally his right hand since he takes over from him.

There are three noticeable stances to analyse when we consider their position. The first is the gap between Carter and Clinton and the rest of the Presidents. The only stance where there is a gap is between Clinton and Carter. The gap is made noticeable because Clinton has his hands behind his back and is closer to Bush and standing slightly behind him. Clinton is not trying to reach out to Carter and by placing his hands behind his back he shows his distance from him. The second noticeable stance is that Carter is the only President not to have positioned himself with his shoulders behind George W. Bush’s shoulders. Carter was and remains an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and its aftermath. By contrast, Clinton, George H. Bush, and Obama are all behind George W. Bush’s shoulders while Carter’s shoulders are level to them. The third stance that is noticeable is Barack Obama’s.  He is behind George W. Bush and in front of George H. Bush.  What is striking is that Obama’s left shoulder appears raised as if George W Bush is crowding him and Obama is trying to avoid touching him. Obama’s whole stance appears as if he is trying to move away from George W. Bush and towards George H. Bush. At the same time, it may also signify that both Bush’s want to be close to Obama to bask in his current popularity and status. They may have position themselves to exclude Clinton and Carter from that opportunity so that the public see Obama close to them in any photos that would focus on Obama.


Three men are wearing blue ties and two are wearing red. What is of interest is the following.  Carter is the most distinctive. He is wearing a gray suit and a red tie.  No one else is where a gray suit. His suit is the lightest of the group, again, perhaps to show his distance from the main group. Two presidents, Clinton and Carter, are wearing red ties. Three presidents are wearing blue ties but they are not from the same party.  George W. Bush and George H. Bush are Republicans and Barack Obama is a Democrat.  Obama appears to be trying to fit in by having the same tie and the same dark suits as George W and George H Bush. The suit colours are all dark except for Jimmy Carter has a relatively lower public profile and rarely seeks publicity.


In the photo below, we see the same situation from a slightly different angle which allows us to see each president’s feet and their full posture. What is noticeable is how relaxed George H. Bush is in his posture with his hands in his pockets and his feet comfortably apart, right foot forward. By contrast, Bill Clinton looks as if he standing at attention with his heels together, his hands behind his back, and his posture appearing almost ramrod straight. Jimmy Carter is also relaxed with his feet apart and his hands on his side. However, he doe snot appear as comfortable as George H. Bush. In a similar way Barack Obama, as the president elect, has a posture similar to Clinton’s although his heels are not touching and his hands are crossed in front. We can notice how uncomfortable, for a President in his own office, George W. Bush looks. His feet are separated but with one foot slightly raised as if resting on the side of his foot, his feet betray a sense of unease. At the same time, his posture pushes him in front of Barack Obama as if he is trying to crowd him out. The dynamic and implicit tension between the President and the President Elect is clear. One could also suggest that Bush is trying to align himself with Obama, who is the next president and clearly more charismatic, to share the spotlight and attention. In a sense, we can see one President holding on to the spotlight even as the other President emerges from their shadow as their successor.

English: In January 2009, President of the Uni...

English: In January 2009, President of the United States of America, George W. Bush invited then President-Elect Barack Obama and former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter for a Meeting and Lunch at The White House. Photo taken in the Oval Office at The White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The photos reveal an Obama that is still not comfortable with his role. What needs to be done is to have a similar photo taken in a year when Obama has been President. One would suspect that the body language will change as the position and posture change. At the same time, Obama’s discomfort may reflect that there is a Bush to either side of him and that keeps him from expressing where he wants to stand. They may be standing close to him so that they share in his current popularity.  What is striking, aside from Obama’s attempts to mask a deeper discomfort, is how far Carter is cut adrift from the rest of the group.  He is either quite comfortable in his outspoken status or the group is trying to distance themselves from him so that they are seen with Obama and not being identified as being with Carter.  One could almost imagine based upon the campaign and Obama’s own rhetoric, that he would be more comfortable standing between Clinton and Carter and not between George H and George W Bush. A last point to consider is that Obama appears the happiest of the presidents. He is uninitiated in its burdens, which may suggest why his smile is broadest and appears genuine. The other presidents, while their expressions are positive and open, do not show an openness or depth of feeling that Obama clearly expresses. The nearest expression to that of Obama is Gorge W Bush who seems almost appears giddy in being the host but also aware that he is soon to shrug off the burdens of the presidency.

As the saying, often attributed to Sigmund Freud, goes “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”, so too sometimes a picture is just a picture. We can read into situations and images what we want. Yet, what is clear is that the pictures do capture something important in the positional dynamics of powerful people. Perhaps these are sub-conscious behaviors or simply what the photographer wanted, but they do give us an opportunity to see the presidents in a way that helps us understand how they understand themselves. What will be useful is to compare this photograph with any that Obama has with Donald Trump and whether Trump would feel comfortable to be in the presence of the former presidents.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to Five Presidents: A picture tells a story

  1. flynnroad says:

    Obama seemed very comfortable when he did that photo Op with Trump. Trump seemed like a scared man to me.

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