In 1976, Richard Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene, coined the term "meme." 40 years later, Donald Trump, a living meme, won a presidential election. Between these two watershed events, Barack Obama enjoyed the honor of being the first American president to serve the entirety of his term in an era both drowning in and shaped by internet memes.
Sure, some clips of George W. Bush awkwardly dancing in Africa or getting a shoe chucked at him enjoyed The Daily Show virality and made their way to the image flash sites of the proto-internet, but the tech and infrastructure was not yet in place to give every grandparent in the world the power to wield and consume dank memes.
While the rest of the journalistic world looks back on Obamas myriad accomplishments, we thought we'd give the memes he inspired their own retrospective.
After a 200-plus year history of electing white dude presidents with super white dude names, it's still a marvel that the American public (temporarily) swallowed its fear of foreign-sounding stuff and elected a guy named Barack Hussein Obama.
People came to familiarize themselves with this new political player's name in a number of ways. Some fear-mongered about the non-Anglican sound of it, while others noted that "Barack" sounds a lot like "Brock," a gym trainer from Pokémon.
As these were simpler times, the apolitical "Brock Obama" mashup lived out its short existence as some YTMND videos, Facebook pages, and many crude photoshops of the cartoon's head on the human's body.
Before he was president, Barack Obama was an accomplished author, his memoirs, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope were both New York Times bestsellers. While these literary efforts earned him critical praise and accolades (even Grammys), the best thing to come of them was undoubtedly the author-read audiobooks, wherein we get to hear the soon-to-be POTUS say very un-presidential things about "sorry-ass motherfuckers," "ignorant motherfuckers," and people who need to buy their "own damn fries."
As Obama ascended into his role as leader of the free world, both internet pranksters and morning zoo DJs alike enjoyed the comedy goldmine offered by soundboards where the new Commander in Chief said naughty words in his then-already-iconic cadence.
Shepard Fairey, the guy who turned a close up of Andre the Giant's face into a street art and clothing brand, joined the ranks of all-time great propaganda poster artists like James Montgomery Flagg with his unofficial "HOPE" poster for the 2008 Obama campaign.
With a simple "word + face" format, the poster lent itself to easy parody and similar tri-colored images of John McCain, The Joker, and other pop culture figures soon flooded the internet. Paste Magazine even launched a (now-defunct) Obamicon.Me photo generator in early 2009. A testament to the staying power of the meme, a number of "GROPE" posters surfaced in the style of the original in the wake of Donald Trump's infamous Access Hollywood video.
At the end of the third debate of the 2008 Presidential campaign, the moderator told Senator McCain that he was exiting the stage in the wrong direction. Channeling the bit of Michael Scott awkwardness we each have inside us, McCain chose to diffuse the situation by making a goofy "bleh" face and turning around. Unfortunately for McCain, Reuters photographer Jim Bourg captured the moment as a highly exploitable image of the aged Senator looking like a zombie chasing quarry.
INTERRUPTING BILL CLINTON
In 2010, photographer Drew Angerer captured a surprise visit from former President Clinton at a press briefing on a tax bill. The photo shows an exasperated-looking Obama juxtaposed with a lively, flamboyant Clinton. Coupled with Clinton's scandalous history, the photo sets up Obama as the straight man foil to Clinton's sex jokes and shenanigans, a motif that would be repeated years later with Biden-centric memes.
"NOT BAD" FACE
During a 2011 visit to Buckingham Palace, Barack and Michelle were photographed making silly faces that seemed to signify begrudging approval of something. Their "not bad" faces were summarily vectorized and added to the growing "rage face" catalog of the era.
During his 2012 Reddit AMA, Obama completed this meme's life cycle with a heavy wink and nod as he described his experience with the website as "NOT BAD!"
Taken at an Irish pub in Washington D.C., this photo of Obama giving thumbs up while holding a beer was used to signify a generous doling out of internet points or approval, the most common phrase associated with it being "Fuck it, have an upvote."
Despite its similarity to the "not bad" Obama meme, Upvote Obama existed more as an image macro outside of the dwindling-in-popularity rage comic format.
CELL PHONE OBAMA
At the tail end of the 2012 Presidential election, an AP photographer caught yet another "oh, exploitable" pic of Obama holding a phone with a smug look on his face. The expression fit perfectly with the pixelated sunglasses "deal with it" meme that had been making the rounds at the time and, thus, a new Obama meme was born.
Ironically, according to journalist Devon Dwyer, who was there for the shot, this "smug" face was actually the result of Obama dialing a wrong number while fundraising.
Probably the richest life cycle of any meme on this list, "Thanks, Obama" started as a sarcastic mockery of right-wingers who sought to blame all their woes on the Obama administration, even irksome everyday frustrations.
"Thanks, Obama" initially rose to prominence at the same time as over-exaggerated infomercials where people failed at simple tasks like moving plates of food or combing their hair. Pairing a "thanks, Obama" with a gif of a man knocking over a comically large bowl of chips perfectly encapsulated just how far certain groups were willing to go to vilify the President.
Obama himself even got in on the scapegoating in a very meta video (above) wherein a cookie he's eating is too large to be dunked in a glass of milk.
Occasionally, during dips in his popularity, the meme would be used to express actual disapproval. But towards the end of his second term, as people reflected on the accomplishments of his administration, particularly in instances of LGBTQ rights or healthcare, the meme took on its final form as a sincere expression of gratitude.
In 2015, a doctored photo of Obama with a "fuccboi" haircut surfaced with a caption indicating that "nah, me and Michelle don't talk no more." Soon after, Obamas with Drake-esque beards, dreadlocks, and other looks made the rounds on social media.
This fuccboi persona was given a second wind when a 2016 photo surfaced of Obama in very fashionable athleisure, replete with "dad hat," snapped at Fort McNair in front of a giant "69" building number. With real life confirmation of what was once a stream of Photoshop jokes, the internet was once again set ablaze with quips about the Commander in Chief looking like the kind of guy who would ghost a girl after a one-night-stand.
The Obama Presidency ended with a fairly wholesome and over-covered meme template of the President once again playing straight man while the VP made crude jokes or set up pranks at the expense of President-elect Trump.
Borrowing from the real life bromance between Joe and Barack that had the two awarding each other friendship bracelets and Presidential Medals of Freedom, this meme's call-and-response format, coupled with the variety of photos of its two subjects, also signified a maturation of internet memes as a whole, away from Impact font over one specific photo and towards a more fluid, free-form, genre-bending comedy landscape.
Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.