If you don’t have a pre-teen female in your household, the significance of Michelle Obama’s recent appearance on “iCarly” may have been lost on you. The show, a situation comedy that depicts the antics of some wholesome and terrible likeable teenagers who have their own Internet web show, appears on the Nickelodeon cable channel. It’s a huge hit, especially with young girls. But while there was nothing particularly partisan or sinister about the episode in which Mrs. Obama guest-starred, it’s noteworthy because it shows not only the effective way the White House has managed to insinuate the first lady into children’s programming but also how differently Obama’s family is treated by the press and popular culture when compared to his recent predecessors.
The point is not just that it is almost impossible to imagine Laura Bush being treated so royally by a popular television show though that is certainly the case. Rather, it is that the Obamas and their children are given the sort of kid-glove treatment by pop culture and the media that has not been seen in this country since the days of John F. Kennedy and Camelot.
The Bush family as well as that of Vice President Cheney were the subject of vulgar and pointedly partisan comments that repeatedly found their way into television scripts. But even recent Democratic presidents were not treated as kindly as the Obamas. Given the abuse that was dished out to Chelsea Clinton and Amy Carter (the last two small children of presidents to live in the White House) the respectful manner with which the mainstream media has regarded the Obama children stands out.
That is not to argue the press should be abusive to the Obamas. Any president’s family ought to be off-limits for the abuse that was dealt to the Bushes or even the Clintons for that matter. But the cynicism with which politicians are normally portrayed on television is strictly on hold when the Obamas are mentioned.
Michelle Obama has taken advantage of a welcome mat that was never rolled out for her predecessor. She has become a familiar face to kids via public service announcements on the Disney Channel about healthy food and exercise and has now capped that with her guest role on “iCarly.” There will be those who grouse that her ability to pop up in these settings is an attempt to send a not-so-subtle subliminal message to parents to vote for her husband. They’re not entirely wrong, and one might think producers would regard it as prudent to stay away from the White House during an election year. But even if you believe there’s something not kosher about this, it’s doubtful the 2012 election will be heavily influenced by “iCarly’s” fan base.
Nevertheless, this stunt is one more reminder to Republicans that their task this year is not as easy as some of them might think. President Obama not only has all the natural advantages that accrue to any incumbent, he can also count on a largely sympathetic mainstream media and the adoration of the arbiters of most of our popular culture. The Camelot treatment by these powerful influences on society gives Obama a leg up on the GOP. This stacked deck is one more obstacle that Republicans will have to overcome if they hope to defeat Obama in November.