There’s never been a president who maintained a more visible presence in pop culture during his years in the White House than Barack Obama. Yes, Nixon did Laugh-in and Clinton played his sax on Arsenio, but those were really just toe-dips into the pop-culture pool, whereas Obama has jumped in with both feet. There was his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode, his memorable appearance on Between Two Ferns, and, of course, his yearly brackets on ESPN.
Obama is of a different generation than the presidents who came before him, a generation that doesn’t see music, movies, and the like as flimsy distractions, but as a meaningful part of our lives and identities. He’s also the first president of the social media era, which has meant that his presence in our everyday lives has been markedly different from his predecessors.
All of that adds up to a president who’s been more vocal about and visible in his consumption of and appreciation for pop culture than any other. And before you bother complaining that the president should be doing more with his time than appearing on talk shows and curating playlists to post on Twitter, keep a few things in mind:
- George W. Bush spent more time clearing brush in Crawford, Texas, than Obama spent sleeping over the last eight years. Presidents are still people.
- Everything Obama did relating to pop culture was completed with a tremendous amount of assistance from aides; it’s not like he was ignoring intelligence briefs so he could round out a list of Barry’s Best Summer Jamz
- The internet and social media have given public figures of all types a more direct line of communication with the public. Obama has used that direct line in all aspects of his presidency, so it makes total sense that he’d use it to try to humanize himself and share a (less serious) bit of himself using the connective platform it provides.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at Obama’s pop culture legacy.
Weak Impressions and Translated Anger
Weirdly, a huge factor in how presidents get remembered is a result of how they were portrayed on Saturday Night Live. From Chevy Chase’s weekly mockery of a bumbling Gerald Ford to Will Ferrell’s frat-boy interpretation of Bush the second, our lasting perception of presidential personalities is often determined by this one show.
But for whatever reason, SNL never really managed to produce a memorable Obama. You can argue that they never had the right cast member to play him (Jay Pharoah’s impression is technically strong, but for whatever reason, never resonated) or that there just wasn’t enough to mine from his almost comically measured speaking style to create a real spark of humor.
The one sketch that got closest to defining public perception of Obama’s personality wasn’t an SNL sketch at all (although they tried something similar with The Rock, only with less success), but the “Luther the Anger Translator” bit from Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, a show that probably got a tenth as many viewers as it deserved (I’m looking at everyone complaining about how there’s no more Chappelle’s Show when Key & Peele ran for like seven years).
The sketch, which hilariously used Obama’s flat, professorial manner as a contrast to his “anger translator,” who said what we all assumed the president was thinking when he spoke with exaggerated diplomacy on a variety of controversial topics. The sketch was so good, that the White House invited Keegan Michael Key to actually stand by the president during a White House Correspondents’ Dinner and deliver some on the spot anger translation.
POTUS Slow Jams the News
Whatever else is true about Jimmy Fallon (for whatever reason, it seems like a lot of people really do not like that dude), it’s obvious that he has used his time on The Tonight Show to spice up the late night TV format. Mostly, this amounts to getting celebrities to play stupid games, but it has also included a few genuinely funny bits, my favorite of which is the “Slow Jam the News” segment.
“Slow Jam the News” is exactly what it sounds like. Fallon and a celebrity stand onstage, and, while The Roots play some slow, funky jams, they read recent news items, usually ending with the phrase, “Oh, yeah.”
Like most things on Fallon’s show, it’s at least as dumb as it is funny, but President Obama’s two “Slow Jam” appearances showed us that, as serious as he often comes across, POTUS #44 is comfortable letting the public see his goofier side. During his often contentious presidency, it was nice to see every once in a while.
Maybe more than any other aspect of culture, Obama reveled in his love of music. His tastes were not only more varied than past presidents’, but also way, way more contemporary. Nowhere was the diversity of his musical appreciation more evident than in the playlists he released over the last couple of summers. In 2016, the White House presented both daytime and nighttime playlists, eclectic collections of some of POTUS’ faves, including artists like Courtney Barnett, Prince, Charles Mingus, Aaron Neville, Fiona Apple, and Chance the Rapper.
When I read through those selections, I couldn’t help but imagine Obama wearing dad jeans and singing loudly enough to embarrass his daughters (like any father worth his salt is obliged to) during a little downtime at the residence.
Barry’s Reading Life
I’ve often believed that one of the worst things about being president is that you have to sacrifice so much of what you love doing with your free time just to do the job. But as Obama noted in his recent interview with the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, he has been intentional about sparing some precious minutes to remain a reader (of regular-person books, not just policy briefs and the like).
As a former English teacher and an avid reader, I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face about the incredible educational, psychological, and emotional importance of reading. In reading the president’s interview, it’s clear he feels the same way, and there’s something comforting about knowing that, on an almost daily basis, Obama spent some time reflecting on the wisdom of others, trying to understand the world from another perspective by cracking open a book.
No president can escape the reach of pop culture, but only Barack Obama has truly made embraced it. Whatever you think of him, it’s almost impossible to hear him talk about the things he loves without feeling like you’re hearing the words of a human being who actually lives in the same world as the rest of us.
I’m gonna miss it. I have a feeling the guy with the golden toilet isn’t going to make me feel the same way.