Did you lose your car keys? Did you just drop your lunch onto the floor? Are hurricanes destroying the coasts? Well, there is one person who, according to the internet, has caused all these events: Barack Obama. Yes, the 44th president of the United States has become a meme figure notorious for allegedly committing numerous mishaps ranging from simple papercuts to disasters of historic proportions. But how did this seemingly sincere phrase turn into a sarcastic way of shifting blame of controllable or uncontrollable circumstances onto Barack Obama? Well, the answer is not as simple. The fact is that this meme has gone through numerous shifts from when the phrase was first used around Obama’s inauguration in 2009 to the present day, where it remains one of the most well-known and most popular political memes (if not one of the most popular memes in general).
Some of the first documented use of the phrase “Thanks, Obama!” was used as sincere thanks directed towards Obama in the period surrounding his election and subsequent inauguration. A sort of doubtful optimism was present around this time as the 2008 financial crisis was in full swing, and some voters clamored to thank the president-elect for what he might bring. However, it soon turned into a sarcastic detraction by Obama detractors, specifically from the Republican party and the political right wing at large. The phrase was first documented used in this way regarding a proposed tax, followed by a post to a conservative blog with a girl flipping a camera off while thanking Obama for allegedly spending her current and future money. The phrase became adopted by the right as a criticism of Obama’s administration and actions, from his healthcare proposals to his tax plans. Its meaning at this point was as a strictly sarcastic politically charged statement. Its rise to becoming a meme would take a change in congress’s political balance as well as another co-opting of the phrase.
In 2010, the Republican party gained control of congress. As a result, legislation was not passed and the phrase “Thanks, Obama” was spread to a greater audience, and its political relevance declined. This expanded the popularity of the phrase as one through which a person could pin the blame for any event on Barack Obama. One of the first documented usages of this in effect is a YouTube video from March 16th, 2011, titled “A Delightful Evening” where a woman details her graphic plan to disembowel a man with a knife to the man she plants to kill. The video ends with the man satirically saying “Thanks, Obama!”, seemingly blaming Obama for his impending doom. The phrase rapidly became more and more popular as it evolved from a political statement to a meme. A picture of an exhausted Barack Obama with “Thanks Obama” in Impact font text on the bottom of the image was quickly adopted as the official face of the meme. The meme quickly circulated through the internet and made prominent appearances even around the 2012 elections. Some reddit users shared gifs of infomercial fails with the “Thanks Obama” text on the bottom, with one prominent post from user Martholomule sharing a gif of a man dropping a tray and spilling food on himself and everywhere blaming Obama for his predicament. A subreddit around this meme was created and amassed tens of thousands of subscribers within a short period of time. Infomercial fail gifs became one of the most prominent applications of this meme, with numerous users sharing them as reaction gifs to unpleasant situations.
Over time, the usage of the phrase had reduced any political weight or detraction it had. Despite some still using it as a sarcastic dismissal of Obama’s policies, most used it as a humorous way of blaming the president for any variety of things gone wrong. Memes of Obama causing the Hindenburg Explosion, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Depression, among thousands of others, were created and circulated online. Within a couple years, the meme had spread to the point that Obama could be blamed for just about anything negative, even in situations he could not possibly have had a hand in. However, a meme’s life span is short and even after the resurgence of the “Thanks, Obama!” meme in 2015 following unfavorable political action, the meme seemed like it had died. Its death was noticeably shown when Obama himself used the phrase in a video where he tried (and failed) to dip a cookie in milk. However, in recent years, the meme has come back, both as a joke and as a somewhat sincere appreciation for the president.
The impact this meme has had, however, is sometimes underappreciated. It was one of the first times that there had been a sarcastic online detraction from a high-profile political leader in the US, and showed that the morphing of an initially charged statement into a universal symbol of frustration and humor would become increasingly common in society with the rise of memes and the culture surrounding memes. The changes that the meme has gone through from its origins through its death and occasional modern usage show that the ability to satirize figures as well as backhandedly appreciate them have developed and will continue to develop as allowed by memes. This meme has allowed for other memes criticizing and poking fun at political leaders to become far more popular and widespread than would have been possible earlier, as well as demonstrating how the meaning of a meme is affected by those who use the meme. This exchange is a powerful part of any culture, and this meme is a product of this culture as well as a reminder of the ability of communities to circulate this culture.