WASHINGTON (AP) — 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: slow-jamming the news
with Jimmy Fallon, reading mean tweets with Jimmy Kimmel, filling out
his NCAA basketball bracket on ESPN, cruising with Jerry Seinfeld on
"Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."
"I'm appreciably cooler than I
was two minutes ago," Obama declared after taking the wheel of a 1963
Corvette Stingray with Seinfeld in 2015.
And, months before the
end of his term, he delivered what could be his with-it farewell line as
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.
Obama matched the president on-trend moment for on-trend moment: She
strapped on a seatbelt for "Carpool Karaoke" with James Corden, beat
Ellen DeGeneres in a push-ups contest and rapped with a turnip.
It wasn't just frivolity.
In an increasingly fragmented media world, the Obamas turned niche pop culture platforms to serious ends.
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.
"OK, let's get this out of the way, what did you come here to plug?" Galifianakis groused.
think it's fair to say that I wouldn't be with you here today if I
didn't have something to plug," Obama shot back. "Have you heard of the
Affordable Care Act?"
Some conservatives called that appearance
undignified. But within days, it had snagged 18 million views, on par
with Justin Bieber. And health care signups ticked upward.
president tossed a "Mad Men" reference into his 2014 State of the Union
address — calling out wage disparities between men and women — and
Twitter went wild.
He paid a 2015 house call to comic Marc Maron's
garage in California to talk terrorism, racial politics and gun control
on Maron's "WTF" podcast.
For all the fascination with Obama's pop culture finesse, there was a downside.
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,'" says
Dezenhall. People "got sick and tired of hearing that Islam is a
peace-loving religion and that there's nobody braver than Kaitlyn
Of course Trump, too, is in large part a product of pop
culture, with decades of movie cameo credits as a billionaire
businessman and a long run as the Richie-Rich "Apprentice" boss.
"But he spoke more to the heartland, whereas Obama's success was very coastal," says Dezenhall.
president's melding of policy and pop culture started early, when he
promoted his economic stimulus plan to Jay Leno (remember him?) on NBC's
"Tonight Show" in 2009.
Past presidents had done late-night shows, but only as candidates, not after they took office.
of Bill Clinton, in sunglasses, wailing "Heartbreak Hotel" on his sax
on Arsenio Hall's show in 1992. Or Richard Nixon's labored "sock it to
me" soundbite on "Laugh-In" in September 1968.
(It took six takes for Nixon to get the four-second quip right.)
Schlatter, the show's creator, later said Nixon believed "appearing on
'Laugh-In' is what got him elected, and I believe that."
caught flak for his Leno appearance — beneath the office, some said —
but he shrugged it off as just part of the needling that comes with the
"It's a little bit like 'American Idol,' except everyone is Simon Cowell," he said.
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 later 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.
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.
cultural allusions worked for him, Troy says, because they were
authentic. Obama watched more TV growing than up any other president, he
The same shtick didn't necessarily work for Hillary Clinton in her unsuccessful campaign to succeed him.
Clinton turned up with Katy Perry or other pop stars, Troy says, "It
seemed inauthentic. Nobody felt that she actually listened to their
Even Obama had his stumbles and may have taken it too far at times.
attempt to maximize the messages from his 2016 State of the Union
address went pretty far afield when he found himself being questioned by
YouTube personality "sWooZie" on the rapping skills of Drake vs.
Kendrick Lamar. (Obama went with Lamar.)
And then there was his
2013 offhand reference to a "Jedi mind-meld." That was an inadvertent
mashup of references to "Star Wars" and "Star Trek."