For better or worse, a pop-culture president
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.