What a 5-year-old’s request says about Obama’s race role

Enduring image speaks to Obama’s racial significance

Pete Souza/The White House via The New York Times
Jacob Philadelphia, 5, the son of a White House staffer, wanted to know whether President Obama’s hair felt like his own.

WASHINGTON - For decades at the White House, photographs of the president at work and at play have hung throughout the West Wing, and each print soon gives way to a more recent shot. But one picture of President Obama remains after three years.

In the photo, Obama looks to be bowing to a sharply dressed 5-year-old boy, who stands erect beside the Oval Office desk, his arm raised to touch the president’s hair. The image has struck so many White House aides and visitors that, by popular demand, it stays put while others come and go.

As a candidate and as president, Obama has avoided discussing race except in rare instances when he seemed to have little choice - responding to the racially incendiary words of his former pastor, for example, or to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida. Some black leaders criticize Obama for not directly addressing young black people or proposing policies specifically for them.


Yet the photo is tangible evidence of what polls also show: Obama remains a potent symbol for black people, with a deep reservoir of support. As skittish as White House aides often are in discussing race, they also clearly revel in the power of their boss’s example.

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The boy in the picture is Jacob Philadelphia of Columbia, Md. Three years ago this month, his father, Carlton, was leaving the White House staff after a two-year stint on the National Security Council that began in the Bush administration. As departing staff members often do, Philadelphia asked for a family photograph with Obama.

When the pictures were taken and the family was about to leave, Philadelphia told Obama that his sons each had a question. In interviews, he and his wife, Rosean, said they did not know what the boys would ask. The White House photographer, Pete Souza, was surprised, too, as the photo’s awkward composition attests: The parents’ heads are cut off, Jacob’s arm obscures his face, and his older brother, Isaac, is blurry.

Jacob spoke first.

“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,’’ he told Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.


Jacob did, and Obama replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?’’

He brought his head level with Jacob, who hesitated.

“Touch it, dude!’’ Obama said.

As Jacob patted the presidential crown, Souza snapped.

“So, what do you think?’’ Obama asked.


“Yes, it does feel the same,’’ Jacob said.

(Isaac, now 11, asked Obama why he had eliminated the F-22 fighter jet. Obama said it cost too much, Isaac and his parents recounted.)

In keeping with a practice of White House photographers back to Gerald R. Ford’s presidency, each week Souza picks photos for display. That week, Jacob’s easily made the cut.

“That one became an instant favorite. . . . People are struck by the fact that the president of the United States was willing to bend down and let a little boy feel his head,’’ Souza said.