The Pop Presidency of Barack Obama
In his memoir Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama describes the after-school routine of his childhood in Hawaii, where he was raised by his grandparents:
I might stop off at a newsstand run by a blind man who would let me know what new comics had come in. Gramps would be at home to let me into the apartment, and as he lay down for his afternoon nap, I would watch cartoons and sitcom reruns. Homework would be done in time for dinner, which we ate in front of the television. There I would stay for the rest of the evening, negotiating with Gramps over which programs to watch, sharing the latest snack food he’d discovered at the supermarket. At ten o’clock, I went to my room (Johnny Carson came on at that time, and there was no negotiating around that), and I would go to sleep to the sounds of Top 40 music on the radio.
Obama had the stereotypical American pop-culture childhood, and then some. Indeed, Obama’s nonstop television-viewing was a point of contention in the one brief interaction he ever had with his father. Barack Obama Sr.’s visit to Hawaii in 1971 was an uncomfortable one. His mother’s parents had never approved of their daughter’s union, and his mother Stanley, who had left her son with her parents and was living in Jakarta, returned to Hawaii for the visit.
Against the backdrop of a fight among the four adults, Obama “turned on the television to watch a cartoon special—How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” His father turned away from the adults and said, “Barry, you have watched enough television tonight. Go into your room and study now, and let the adults talk.” His grandmother kindly suggested that Obama retire to his room and watch the show there, but his father objected: “No, Madelyn, that’s not what I mean. He has been watching that machine constantly, and now it is time for him to study.” After his father left for the evening, his grandmother allowed him to watch the end of his show, but the damage was done. The father who had not wanted his son to continue “watching that machine” had made a lasting and unhappy impression. The young TV-watcher felt that “something had cracked open between all of us.” He could not have known that this visit would be the last time he would ever see his father, but he did start “to count the days until my father would leave and things would return to normal.”
By “normal,” he meant in part a return to uninterrupted television. While Obama was living in Indonesia, from 1967 to 1971, his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, found a new job. The family’s improved economic circumstances resulted in the arrival of all the pop-culture entertainment staples: “a television and hi-fi replaced the crocodiles and Tata, the ape.” At this point, Obama relates, an important change in his thinking occurred: “On the imported television shows that had started running in the evening, I began to notice that Cosby never got the girl on I Spy, that the black man on Mission: Impossible spent all his time underground.”
The young Obama also liked Star Trek. Years later, while posing for an Oval Office picture with Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress who played Lieutenant Uhura of the starship Enterprise, he confirmed a report that he had developed a crush on her in his youth. She verified that Obama “was definitely a Trekker,” adding, “How wonderful is that?!” Obama lost some of that Trekker street cred in March 2013 when he referred to the “Jedi mind meld,” confusing Star Trek’s “Vulcan mind meld” with Star Wars’s “Jedi mind trick.” That the error received so much attention spoke not only to the obsessiveness of fans in both camps, but also to the high expectations Americans had regarding Obama’s knowledge of pop.
Obama’s youthful observations about race and his TV-star crushes were the first indications that American culture had much to teach him about the broader world. During those junior-high years with his grandparents, he believed that “whatever it was I was after, whatever it was that I needed, would have to come from some other source. TV, movies, the radio; those were the places to start.”
His fondness for television continued into college, though he now had fewer leisure hours to pour into it. At Occidental College, Obama would watch Lakers games with his buddies. And he would get together nightly with basketball friends to watch Johnny Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show.
Of course, if Obama had remained a couch potato, he would never have become our 44th president. He soon developed a degree of disillusionment with pop culture, writing dismissively in one of his two memoirs about “the narrower path to happiness to be found in television and the movies….” Once he left Hawaii, he even started encouraging people to switch off the TV, chiding his sister Maya “for spending one evening watching TV instead of reading the novels I’d bought for her.”
Still, the influence of all that youthful television-watching is present today. In a book on the inner workings of Obama’s presidential reelection campaign, Politico’s Glenn Thrush reports that although Obama’s biographers “have been more enamored with his complexity,” Obama himself “seeks shallower waters, especially in times of crisis.” When the going gets tough in the White House, Thrush says, the president plays sports and watches ESPN. Indeed, while Obama’s administration was beset by scandals regarding improper IRS investigations and the death of U.S. officials in Benghazi, the New York Times’s Peter Baker reported that Obama “talked longingly of ‘going Bulworth,’ a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought.” Thrush, it seems, was right that movies and TV served as Obama’s version of “comfort food.”
Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis reports that Obama continues to watch TV regularly, spending the hours from 10 o’clock at night to one in the morning with the television and his iPad.No wonder, then, that he knows what’s happening on Real Housewives and Jersey Shore, reality shows he says he doesn’t like and doesn’t watch.
Although he has a wide variety of TV interests, Obama’s favorite programming is sports. His adviser Valerie Jarrett complained in 2009 that the president’s interests are “sports, sports, and more sports.” On the “campaign trail, as soon as we would get on the bus, the first thing he would do is turn the channel to sports channels.”
Obama’s TV-watching and his day job get in the way of his reading. The presidency is so taxing that “you have very little chance to really read,” he says. “I basically floss my teeth and watch SportsCenter.” Obama himself appears annually on ESPN to share his NCAA basketball tournament brackets, and he especially likes to watch sports in what Politico’s Amie Parnes calls “the ultimate man-cave—Air Force One.”
Obama takes his sports seriously and does not want to be interrupted by conversation during games. It was made clear to guests at his annual Super Bowl party that they were there to watch the game with the president, not to schmooze with him. Pennsylvania congressman Mike Doyle recalls that Obama “was sitting up front, he was watching the game, and he didn’t move.”The then–CEO of Verizon, Ivan Seidenberg, said he spent 15 seconds with the president at the 2010 White House Super Bowl party. After that brief and impersonal greeting, the president made his way to the front of the room and spent the rest of the game with his friends, immersed in the action rather than his guests.
But it’s not all sports all the time for Obama. He likes Homeland, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage, and The Wire (which he calls “one of the best shows of all time”). If The Wire’s characters were broken down like a March Madness bracket, he says, Omar (a gay, Robin Hood–esque killer) would be “the No. 1 seed.” He made sure to say: “That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character.” Another of his favorites is the 1960s advertising retrospective Mad Men, which “explains my grandparents, their tastes.”Obama’s TV habits distinguish him from previous presidents, but not from today’s TV-loving public.
During the 2008 campaign, HBO’s Entourage revealed itself a particular Obama favorite. One of the characters, the fast-talking and foul-mouthed Ari, was reportedly based on Ari Emanuel, the brother of Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Obama “would talk about Entourage all the time,” according to his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. The candidate would even try to arrange his schedule so he could watch the show.
Hollywood loves this presidential enthusiasm for television. The star of Showtime’s Homeland, the British actor Damian Lewis, was thrilled to learn about Obama’s interest in the show. “Not only has Obama been watching it,” he gushed, “but his aides have been calling up going, ‘We need to see it.’…So he’s been getting entire state departments, top of the U.S. government, asking to see it because their boss watches it and they feel they need to know what their boss has been watching.”
The Hollywood Reporter included “multiple shout-outs from President Obama” among the top accolades garnered by the show, along with a Golden Globe and a Peabody. As co-creator Alex Gansa gratefully noted: “[Obama] stumped for us. He should be on the payroll, he’s been amazing.” According to Lewis, Obama even said that “while Michelle and the two girls go play tennis on Saturday afternoons, I go in the Oval Office, pretend I’m going to work, and then I switch on Homeland.”
Obama’s TV habits have won the approval of television critics. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker congratulates him for “excellent taste in drama.” And Politico’s Parnes writes that Obama’s knowledge of television allows him “to show off his pop-culture cool.” The public-relations downside, however, is that Obama’s personal picks are mostly niche shows on expensive cable channels. Obama likes to watch the shows of the 1 percent rather than the 99 percent. His preferences also reflect the recent stratification of TV programming. The days when I Love Lucy or All in the Family captured a third or even a half of the national television audience are gone. Name any one of today’s most successful shows, and most Americans will never have seen it. TV has become a niche medium, micro-targeting specific demographic groups with narrowly tailored shows, with a corresponding advertising or pay-subscription strategy. Apart from certain sporting events, the president can no longer watch what everyone else is watching. No one can. Instead, Obama has developed a persona that appeals to elite opinion makers as cool or hip or sophisticated, cultivating an image with television as John F. Kennedy did with books. The American people may not have been reading the books that Kennedy was supposedly reading, but they appreciated that he was reading them.
Obama kept up with his shows even in the midst of the tight 2012 reelection campaign. Jetting across the country on Air Force One, he was never far from a TV. SportsCenter constantly played, and the president made sure not to miss Homeland or Boardwalk Empire.He even attacked his opponents with TV talk. He belittled the Republican National Convention as “a re-run,” adding: “We’ve seen it before. You might as well have watched it on a black-and-white TV.”For the hippest president in history, there could hardly be a worse insult. And on a 2013 trip to Israel, he even showed himself up-to-date on Israeli television, making a joke about the hit show Eretz Nehederet.
It is apparently still possible, however, to watch too much television. Tending to his popular reputation, Obama did not want to appear to have crossed the line. On Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in April 2012, he maintained, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, “I don’t get a chance to watch a lot of TV.” By the standard of his school days in Hawaii, that might be true. Obama may understand that the American people don’t want their president to watch TV all the time. They assume that he has a lot of work to do. And since Obama is at pains to cultivate his image as an intellectual, he doesn’t want people to think he spends too much time with the idiot box. Better to say that he doesn’t “get a chance to watch a lot of TV.”
A little hypocrisy here is good for the nation. The president has to set an example for America’s youth—especially with his wife working so diligently to reduce childhood obesity. And there is no doubt that American children watch “a lot” of TV. According to the Nielsen Company, children from age 6 to 11 average 28 hours a week in front of the television.That’s why Obama has counseled American schoolchildren to focus on real homework rather than Real Housewives. In a July 2012 speech to the National Urban League, he departed from his prepared text to tell the youths, “America says, ‘We will give you opportunity, but you’ve got to earn your success.” “You’re competing against young people in Beijing and Bangalore,” he continued. “They’re not hangin’ out. They’re not gettin’ over. They’re not playin’ video games. They’re not watching Real Housewives.”
As president, Obama has put all his knowledge of and experience with pop culture to work. His great insight has been that by being part of pop culture—being a celebrity himself—a president can influence how pop culture portrays him. As Politico’s Parnes puts it, “when you’re the president, you don’t just watch TV—you are TV.”
Obama has worked more aggressively than any other president to establish his preferred image through a variety of media—not only books, television, and movies, but also new media, such as Twitter, Reddit, and Google+.Embracing the celebrity culture, he became a rock star himself. Though it was impossible to sustain that level of coolness once he became president, he managed to become what Entertainment Weekly’s Hillary Busis calls a “cool dad.”
If you’re running for president, it’s good to be loved by Hollywood. There’s a lot of money there, and Obama got a lot of it in both of his campaigns. George Clooney earned the title “Mr. Obama’s biggest bankroller,” and Eva Longoria co-chaired his 2012 campaign. Hollywood has long been a liberal stronghold, of course—78 percent of Hollywood dollars in the 2008 campaign went to Democrats—but Obama seemed to take things to a new level. At a Hollywood fundraiser in February 2012, he exhorted the faithful: “I’m going to need you. You’re going to carry this thing like you did in 2008.”
America’s celebrities did more than open their wallets for Obama. They went on the hustings for him. Bruce Springsteen, a veteran of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, made appearances for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Springsteen’s endorsement carried more weight than most because of his universal appeal. The executive producer of Face the Nation, Mary Hager, says she has never met a politician who disliked Springsteen “who’s willing to go on the record.” Americans expect Springsteen “to embody our values, understand our struggles, and illuminate our future,” writes Chris Richards in the Washington Post. Obama himself joked in 2008, “The reason I’m running for president is because I can’t be Bruce Springsteen.”
Celebrity campaigning for Obama became an art form. The comedian Sarah Silverman made “The Great Schlep” southward in 2008 to encourage Jewish grandparents in Florida to vote for Obama—“the goodest person we’ve ever had as a presidential choice.”George Clooney narrated another campaign video. Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington, Obama aide and actor Kal Penn, and a host of other celebrities brought their star power to the convention.
Obama’s own celebrity is important not only because of what his fellow stars do for him, but also because of what the media do not do to him. As a candidate and as president, he has received unusual deference from the TV comedians who eviscerated some of his predecessors. Comedians of course poke fun at him, but gently and infrequently. The comedian Will Durst complained that in 2008 “you couldn’t tell jokes about Obama” because “the halo was too bright.” Don Steinberg wrote in the Wall Street Journal that since the Center for Media and Public Affairs began tracking late-night humor in 1988, 2008 was the “first time that any presidential candidate wasn’t the year’s
No. 1 or No. 2 joke-getter.” To the extent that jokes about Obama did make it on the air, they were softballs like Jon Stewart’s line about Obama’s deviating from a Middle East itinerary for “a side trip to Bethlehem to visit the manger he was born in.”
In 2008 John McCain tried to turn Obama’s celebrity against him with an ad linking him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He failed. In 2012, the Republican Super PAC American Crossroads put together a montage of images of Obama with celebrities, including clips of his singing an Al Green song, dismissing Kanye West as a “jackass,” and dancing with Ellen DeGeneres. The video ends with the question, “After four years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?” As Emily Miller wrote in the Washington Times, Republicans were trying to make the case that if “he’s seen hanging out too often at Mr. Clooney’s house, voters might realize he’s out of touch with real Americans’ problems.” But the Republican jujitsu effort failed as well. The Al Green clip went viral, provoking rapturous praise of Obama’s singing. The political analyst and ex-songwriter Mark McKinnon called Obama’s Al Green moment a “home run,” adding, “History will judge his presidency, but it’s probably not a stretch to say he may be the best crooner to occupy the Oval Office.”
In her book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor reported that the actor Johnny Depp and the director Tim Burton threw an extravagant “Alice in Wonderland” costume party at the White House, but the White House communications apparatus covered it up so that the president would not appear uncaring during a period of economic difficulties.The White House press corps cooperated, at least until Kantor’s book came out a few years later. Even then, interest in the story was short-lived.
There is significant evidence that Obama is personally involved in the White House media strategy. At a minimum, he pays close attention to what is going on in TV news, even though he may not be watching news programming. As Politico’s Parnes discovered, the White House presses the line that “when it comes to the real news, and not the fake kind, Obama takes a pass—rarely ever tuning in to twenty-four-hour cable chatter or to replays of his own performances.” At the same time, he pays close attention in a number of ways. First, as Valerie Jarrett disclosed, “we usually tell him how we think he did” on TV. In addition, Gibbs recalled that even if he does not watch live, “sometimes we’ll show him like a YouTube clip or something off a website itself, and he gets a kick out of that.”
Obama aggressively circumvents the mainstream media when necessary. In the 2012 campaign, he favored “niche online outlets that did not have access, or did not exist, during previous administrations, including personal-finance websites like The Consumerist and Fool.com, and African-American websites like Jack & Jill Politics, The Root, and the Grio.”He also likes to grant interviews to “soft” news sources that cover entertainment or sports. These are venues where Obama has little fear of being hit with controversial questions. He granted ESPN’s Bill Simmons a podcast interview in which he talked at great length and in impressive depth about professional basketball.
On rare occasions, these interviews can trip him up, such as the time in 2010 when baseball announcer and former pitcher Rob Dibble asked Obama to name his “favorite White Sox players growing up.” Obama swung and missed at the pitch, saying, “You know…uh…I thought that…you know…the truth is, that a lot of the Cubs I liked too.” As if this admission was not bad enough to Cubs-hating White Sox fans, he added: “When I moved to Chicago, I was living close to what was then Cominskey Park [sic] and went to a couple of games and just fell in love with it.” This answer compounded the problem, as all baseball fans know that the White Sox used to play at “Comiskey” Park. Obviously uncomfortable with the direction of the interview, Obama moved onto the more familiar ground of class warfare, criticizing highfalutin Cubs fans “sipping their wine” at Wrigley Field.
Occasionally a soft interviewer asks an uncomfortable substantive question. In September 2012, Late Night host David Letterman asked if he knew the size of the national debt. Somewhat unbelievably, Obama responded, “I don’t remember what the number was precisely….”It is likely he knew the answer but did not want to admit to the large number—$16,000,000,000,000 and counting—in a soft venue that was supposed to be portraying him in a favorable light. The Letterman curveball was an exception, and for the most part Obama was secure in the knowledge that most of the questions on popular entertainment shows would be about his preferences in the areas of sports or pop culture.
As long as he stayed away from baseball or the debt, the soft interviews worked well. Accordingly, the pace of celebrity-style turns increased as the 2012 election neared. He “slow jammed” the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and talked about the issue of college loans to Fallon’s youthful audience.Fallon called Obama the “Preezy of the United Steezy,” which did not appear to faze the commander-in-chief.
In the summer of 2012, he went on a New Mexico radio station to tell the DJs that he likes green chilis over red, enjoys working out to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” and that his superpower of choice would be the ability to speak any language. He was also a popular guest on Oprah and The View, appearing five times on the latter, including at a time when he was apparently unable to meet with world leaders in this country for the United Nations General Assembly.According to Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, Obama had given 26 of these “soft” interviews by mid-September of 2012, with more of these interviews flooding in by the day.
This soft-media strategy works brilliantly. Obama has sold himself as a pop-culture president when the pop culture had evolved to the point where no single source—no Walter Cronkite, no New York Times, no I Love Lucy—either dictated or reflected the nation’s tastes. In this new environment, the president could pick and choose his outlets, micro-targeting voters inclined to support him, and avoiding pesky political reporters in venues in which he might be unpopular. This was no Rose Garden strategy—the president was not cloistered in the White House, appearing only to promote one image a day. It was instead an approach for the multi-channeled 21st century, in which consumers follow their interests, and no one media source handles all comers.
Back in 1962, Daniel Boorstin foresaw the ways in which emerging technologies would shape American politics. Boorstin wrote: “Our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals.” The regnant technology of the time was television, of course, and Boorstin added: “The domination of campaigning by television simply dramatizes” the point. But Boorstin’s point was not limited to the technology of television, and it applied to the broadcasting of images by whatever media were available. He wrote: “An effective president must be every year more concerned with projecting images of himself.”
Boorstin wrote his classic, The Image, a year after Obama’s birth, and Obama absorbed its message as much as he inhaled the popular culture of his time. In his quest for the presidency and in his pursuit to retain it, Obama has been a relentless master of “projecting images of himself.” That he has been “an effective president” in this regard is beyond doubt. Whether such an approach is beneficial to the nation is far less clear.