Who is embracing whom in that photograph of the Obamas that went viral on election night? The photograph, shot from below and isolating the first couple against a cloudy sky, shows the president embracing his wife at a campaign rally in August. The first lady is seen from behind, enclosed in the arms of the president, whose eyes are closed. Sent from the president’s Twitter account Tuesday night shortly after news networks declared him the winner, the photograph was immediately retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, making it the most popular image in Twitter history and propelling it to instant love across a host of social-networking programs.
It has all the generic ingredients of a successful political image. With its moody and slate-gray sky, it encapsulated the drama many of President Obama’s supporters felt Tuesday evening: The Obamas had weathered the storm. It also appealed to the almost cultlike sense of affection many Americans feel for the couple. Surging through social networks commonly used to keep people in touch with family and friends, it offered a sense of intimacy with the first family, stroking the same emotional receptors as photographs of the Obama daughters, Malia and Sasha, and the family’s dog, Bo. For Democrats, it also has a basic allegorical function: The bonds of love between Barack and Michelle Obama symbolize a healthy society. For African Americans, it adds to a repository of images that celebrate the success of the Obamas in opposition to the frequent demonization of supposedly dysfunctional black families in popular culture.