Ever since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have been judged on the successes they notch during their first 100 days. Now, as Barack Obama prepares to end his historic turn on the political stage, Yahoo News is launching The Last 100 Days, a look at what Obama achieved during his consequential presidency, how he navigates the struggles of his final months in office and what lies ahead for him after eight years filled with firsts. And we will look at how the country bids farewell to its first African-American president.
It’s not a literal 100 days — Obama leaves office in late January 2017.
And it won’t all be about policy. As Obama himself is fond of noting, he also spent his two terms as father to daughters Malia and Sasha and husband to first lady Michelle Obama. And even without much input from the White House, the cultural landscape shifted dramatically over his two terms on issues such as gay rights.
And then there’s the way the president sees the presidency — not just his tumultuous years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but also the institution and its relationships (for better or worse) with other branches of government and with the news media.
In this fifth installment, we look at an unusual aspect of Obama’s place in history: the number of creatures scientists have named after him.
President Obama has more than 130 days left before he leaves office, but already his name adorns a dozen schools, at least eight streets in the United States, one avenue in Tanzania and a mountain in Aruba. If most of those seem tediously conventional, consider that his name is also attached to a parasitic hairworm that afflicts crickets, an Amazonian puffbird and a footlong carnivorous lizard that went extinct roughly 66 million years ago.
Americans love putting their presidents’ names on things — schools and warships come to mind. The proliferation of places claiming that “George Washington slept here” suggests that the nation’s first president may have battled narcolepsy as much as he fought British redcoats. And legacy-minded presidents, once they leave the White House, put their names on what they typically call a “library.” While it serves as a home for their papers, a presidential library is actually a state-of-the-art secular temple to the former commander in chief. It also houses the extravagant foreign gifts the ex-president received while at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But presidential names also sometimes end up stamped on recently discovered living things or creatures that went extinct — a legacy not of the commander in chief’s own making. It’s up to the discovering scientist to bestow the name.
Last week, Obama traveled to the Midway Atoll to highlight his commitment to fighting climate change and to announce he was dramatically expanding the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. To mark the occasion, the president received a plaque from National Geographic touting a recently discovered fish, native to Papahānaumokuākea, that scientists named after Obama.
“I am deeply honored to have this fish named after me,” he said of Tosanoides obamapyle. “This is a nice-looking fish.”
To this nonscientist, the fish is certainly better looking than some of its competitors among the species named after Obama. Caloplaca obamae, a species of lichen discovered in 2007 and later named after Obama to show “appreciation for the president’s support of science and science education,” looks like the surface of an uninhabitable planet. Africa’s Teleogramma obamaorum fish seems a bit drab. You’d have to be a devoted arachnophile to find the Aptostichus barackobamai trapdoor spider attractive. The recently named Baracktrema obamai blood fluke that afflicts freshwater turtles in Malaysia doesn’t sound all that appealing. On the other hand, the Etheostoma obama spangled darter fish is quite fetching. And the Amazon-based Nystalus obamai puffbird has undeniable appeal.
Meanwhile, Obamadon gracilis won’t ever get confused with T. rex: The insect-munching lizard was only about a foot long, according to Nicholas Longrich, the scientist who named it. Longrich is now a senior lecturer in evolutionary biology at the University of Bath.
But the lizard ultimately shared a fate with its larger brethren. “It got wiped out by the asteroid” blamed for shoving dinosaurs into the “extinct” category, Longrich told Yahoo News by email.
So what led to Longrich’s stroke of genus? The scientist came up with the name in the run-up to the November 2012 election, but held back until after the votes were counted.
“Obamadon, the name, came about as a joke; I was joking about Obamamania and maybe someone should name something after him and call it ‘Obamadon,’” he recalled. “Back in 2012 when I did it, I was still a fan, but since then I feel a bit disillusioned, particularly on foreign policy,” he said.
Though he’s no longer a staunch Obama fan, Longrich doesn’t exactly regret his decision to name the lizard after the 44th president, and doesn’t seem ready to vote for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016.
“Was it a good move or a bad move to name it after him? I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe history will have to decide. Maybe 66 million years from now, whatever evolves to take our place, after Trump is elected and we have a mass extinction event, their paleontologists will decide.”
Maybe the oddest creature to bear Obama’s name, though, is Paragordius obamai, a parasitic hairworm that originates near the area in Kenya where the president’s grandfather was raised. This particular hairworm, which infects crickets, is notable because the species reproduces without a male.
University of New Mexico professor Ben Hanelt, who bestowed the moniker, told Yahoo News that he and his colleagues were aware that the announcement of “a gay parasite named after the president” might generate some unfortunate news coverage.
“We were really worried about that,” Hanelt said in a telephone interview. “Not only is it a parasitic organism, but ultimately it’s the first female-only species within this group.”
But among scientists, having a species named after you “is one of the biggest honors,” he explained. And “the weirder it is, the more outlier a species it is, the better. It’s a way for your name to last forever.”
Hanelt said two factors led to putting the name of the president of the United States on the hairworm. First, the grant money for his research came from the 2009 economic stimulus bill that Obama championed. Second, he and his colleagues discovered the creature not far from where Obama’s grandfather grew up and some relatives still live. “You drive through this town and there’s an Obama hotel, the Obama restaurant, and even a President Obama Museum,” he said. “It was sort of a no-brainer.”
Once the naming was formalized, Hanelt reached out to the White House to let the president know about the discovery and to thank him. In his message, Hanelt explicitly called out the stimulus package for making his work possible, telling Obama, “You put the wind in our sails.”
Six or seven months later, he got a form letter back, with a message more attuned to the politics of the stimulus than to the scientific homage. “It said, ‘We understand your struggle, this is a very tough economy,’” Hanelt said with a laugh.
After Jan. 20, 2017, when “hopefully he won’t be getting thousands of letters a day but maybe hundreds,” Hanelt said he would write to Obama again.
“I will not quit! I want the president to know about this parasite!” he said.
Obama isn’t the first American president to have living things named after him. Scientists gave George Washington’s name to the Washingtonia palms. Teddy Roosevelt, the great outdoorsman and conservationist, has an elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti), a Central African shrew (Crocidura roosevelti), a fish (Etheostoma teddyroosevelt), a beetle (Stenomorpha roosevelti) and an ant (Pheidole roosevelti) named after him. Franklin Delano Roosevelt can boast of a couple of crustaceans, a fish and a worm. Teddy Roosevelt has to share the Etheostoma name with Obama, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and former Vice President Al Gore, who have their own named species.
It’s not just presidents, either. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been immortalized with lomantis ginsburgae — a praying mantis. And Hillary Clinton supporter Beyoncé inspired scientists to name a horsefly “Scaptia beyonceae” — reportedly because of the insect’s “glamorous golden rear end.”
Scientists have also named a species after Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. In 2005, the director of the International Institute for Species Exploration, Quentin Wheeler, named three species of slime-mold beetle after Bush, then-Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi and Agathidium rumsfeldi were not meant as an insult, Wheeler told Yahoo News by telephone.
“I hope not, because I also named a species after my wife,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, I named species after both my first and second wives in the same paper.”
Wheeler, who is president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., said that he and his co-author were trying to name more than 60 different species. “We had exhausted most of the obvious names, and so we decided to get creative,” he said.
Wheeler said he and his colleague “lean to the right,” at least on fiscal issues, and decided on an homage of sorts to the Republican administration.
“We were a bit naive about the media attention it would get,” he said.
Not long after Wheeler announced his discovery, his office received a telephone call. “My secretary said, ‘The White House is on the line.’ By that point, we’d had a lot of media attention, so I assumed it was the press office looking for information,” he said.
Instead, “this lovely female voice says, ‘Dr. Wheeler? Please hold for the president.’ And the next voice was very recognizable,” he recalled.
Bush told Wheeler that Rumsfeld had told him about the slime-mold beetle at a Cabinet meeting that day. The president said he’d requested a staff briefing on the matter, then called Wheeler.
“It is a thrill getting a call from the Oval Office no matter what your political views are,” the scientist said. Rumsfeld sent him a brief note, with a handwritten postscript saying, “This is a first for me!”
But Obamadon might be a last for Longrich, who indicated that he might borrow from a famous political promise and declare no new (presidential) taxonomies.
“Will see on Hillary,” he told Yahoo News. “I’m a supporter, but not naming any species after any politicians again any time soon.”