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Official Presidential Photos and Gray Hair

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Pete Souza/White House

The White House's second official portrait of Barack Obama’s presidency, released Friday, is proof the last four years have changed the man, capturing both his apparent aging and a more confident demeanor. It’s been said sitting presidents tend to age faster than other citizens, backing up sketchy online advertisers' claims that stress makes people look older. Let's take a look at the recent examples.

Barack Obama

Obama’s first White House photo speaks to his youth (he was 47) upon election and inauguration four years ago. The stoic pose and staging is much more traditional and serious than the photo released this week. In 2013, Obama’s hair is definitely aged, though his expression may be hiding the aging of the skin in his face. Also, Obama’s pose and expression is much less traditional , with a wide grin and crossed arms while leaning on the Oval Office desk.

Barack Obama 2009


Barack Obama 2013

George W. Bush

George W. Bush’s two official White House photos look remarkably similar. Bush’s hair is grayer, but his face does not look noticeably older. Most apparent is Bush’s smile is less upturned. Armchair psychologists can certainly make assumptions about Bush’s demeanor in 2009 against his demeanor in 2001, in regards to the events that happened during Bush’s first term. Certainly, it contrasts with Obama’s ear-to-ear smile in his second term photo.

George W. Bush 2001

George W. Bush 2009

Bill Clinton


Considering his presence in the news since leaving office, it’s a little shocking to see how young Bill Clinton looks in both of his official photos. Clinton’s second term image was posed differently, with more of his body showing in a more casual pose. Clinton’s second photo shows a more aged president, grist for the quick-aging-presidents theory. His hair is slightly grayer and his face does look more weathered.

Bill Clinton 1993


Bill Clinton 1997

Ronald Reagan

With the caveat that photo touchup technology has changed quite a bit in the last 32 years, Ronald Reagan looks the most similar in each of his official White House photos. Much of that can be attributed to Reagan’s advanced age; he was the oldest man to be elected president at age 69. He also may have started what Clinton and Obama followed: Reagan’s full-body pose in his 1985 photo is the first of the nontraditional bust portraits.

Ronald Reagan 1981


Ronald Reagan 1985


The notion of gray hair being tied to stress has some basis in fact, so it should be no surprise that presidential hair is grayer in the second term than in first terms. It also should be noted that the last four two-term presidents were elected at an age when gray hair becomes more apparent for everyone (according to NIH, a person’s “chance of going gray increases 10 to 20 percent every decade after 30 years.”). It should be no surprise that presidents look more than four years older in their second term.

Prior to joining Government Executive’s staff, Ross Gianfortune worked at The Washington Post, The Gazette Newspapers, WXRT Radio and The Columbia Missourian. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Missouri and a master's in communications from the American University.

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