For bet­ter or worse, a pop-cul­ture pres­i­dent

Red Eye Chicago - - The Chatter - As­so­ci­ated Press

From his cam­paign fist bump to his the­atri­cal mic drop at the last White House cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner, Barack Obama ruled as Amer­ica’s pop cul­ture pres­i­dent.

His two terms played out like a run­ning chron­i­cle of the trends of our times: slow­jam­ming the news with Jimmy Fal­lon, read­ing mean tweets with Jimmy Kim­mel, fill­ing out his NCAA bas­ket­ball bracket on ESPN.

And, months be­fore the end of his term, he ended his re­marks at the cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner by em­brac­ing a ges­ture pop­u­lar­ized by rap­pers and co­me­di­ans.

“Obama out,” he dead­panned, as he dropped his mi­cro­phone and left the lectern.

Michelle Obama matched the pres­i­dent on-trend moment for on-trend moment: She strapped on a seat­belt for “Car­pool Karaoke” with James Cor­den and beat Ellen DeGeneres in a pushup con­test.

It wasn’t just fri­vol­ity. In an in­creas­ingly frag­mented me­dia world, the Oba­mas turned niche pop cul­ture plat­forms to se­ri­ous ends.

There he was in Alaska, warn­ing about the dangers of cli­mate change on “Run­ning Wild with Bear Grylls.” There she was on the “Tonight Show,” push­ing ex­er­cise by chal­leng­ing Fal­lon to a sack race in the East Room.

The pres­i­dent turned up on “Be­tween Two Ferns with Zach Gal­i­fi­anakis” to get Millennials to sign up for his health care law. Within days, the ap­pear­ance had snagged 18 mil­lion views. And health care signups ticked up­ward.

For all the fas­ci­na­tion with Obama’s pop cul­ture fi­nesse, there was a down­side.

Eric Dezen­hall, a Wash­ing­ton cri­sis man­age­ment con­sul­tant and for­mer Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, con­tends that Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion “can be traced al­most solely to the dom­i­na­tion of the pop­u­lar cul­ture that Obama and Obama-ism had.” Obama’s cul­tural iden­tity was in­ter­twined with a lib­eral agenda that was a turnoff to many vot­ers.

“A lot of Trump’s sup­port­ers said, ‘ I’m tired of hear­ing about this,’ ” Dezen­hall said. Peo­ple “got sick and tired of hear­ing that Is­lam is a peace-loving re­li­gion and that there’s no­body braver than Cait­lyn Jen­ner.”

Of course Trump, too, is in large part a prod­uct of pop cul­ture, with decades of movie cameo cred­its and a long run as the Richie-Rich “Ap­pren­tice” boss.

“But he spoke more to the heart­land, whereas Obama’s suc­cess was very coastal,” Dezen­hall said.

The na­tion wasn’t al­ways sure what to make of this oh-so-hip pres­i­dent. When can­di­date Obama and his wife shared an af­fec­tion­ate fist bump on stage dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, a Fox News an­chor re­ferred to it as a pos­si­ble “ter­ror­ist fist jab.”

The ben­e­fits of Obama’s affin­ity for pop cul­ture were clear: Hol­ly­wood’s bright­est stars stepped up to am­plify his mes­sage and raise money for his causes.

“There also was a kind of re­flec­tive cool­ness” that rubbed off on the pres­i­dent, said Tevi Troy, a for­mer Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who wrote a book about pres­i­dents and pop cul­ture.

Obama’s cul­tural al­lu­sions worked for him, Troy said, be­cause they were au­then­tic.

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