Have you guys noticed anything different about Barack lately? Doesn’t he seem a little more confident—not just politically, in his State of the Union addresses and gun control efforts, but socially? A little more willing to “put himself out there” and try to make new friends? I saw him hanging out with Bear Grylls and Jerry Seinfeld last month—did you guys notice that?
This iteration of the Obama presidency arguably began in May of 2015, when the White House finally granted Barack his own Twitter account. In the following months, I spotted him on “The Daily Show,” “The Late Show,” and “The NBA on TNT,” but when he showed up in June on the “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast to engage in the sort of man-to-man, soul-baring conversation in which the comedian-host specializes, it was clear the game had changed.
And then, in November, he was interviewing the novelist Marilynne Robinson for the “New York Review of Books”—she wasn’t interviewing him; he, as a fan, was interviewing her. A month later, he was on the survival-themed reality show “Running Wild with Bear Grylls” on NBC, trekking through the Alaskan wilderness and eating the salmon scraps left by a hungry bear. Two weeks after that, he was riding shotgun in Jerry Seinfeld’s Corvette in the Web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
What’s going on here? Presidents don’t interview writers; writers are supposed to interview presidents. Presidents don’t make friends with comedians; they are supposed to function, self-sacrificingly, as the targets for comedians’ ridicule. Presidents don’t bother with reality shows or nontraditional media; they’re not even supposed to be aware that these things exist.
Almost from the start, President Obama has engineered a pioneering pop culture outreach program. For example, in 2009, he became the first sitting POTUS to film a late-night TV interview when he showed up on “The Tonight Show”—a breach of dignity so minor, given the historical significance of the program, as to seem quaint now that he’s stooped not only to basic cable but to YouTube.
Barack has hosted Reddit threads and Google+ Hangouts; he has appeared in Buzzfeed videos and on “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis,” a comedy-nerd side-project for Funny or Die. During NBA All-Star Weekend 2014, he submitted to an interview with Charles Barkley.
The closest George W. Bush came to any of this while in office was an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. Clinton’s famous saxophone segment on “The Arsenio Hall Show” preceded the 1992 general election, just as Nixon’s infamous five seconds on “Laugh-In” preceded the 1968 election. Once you’re in the White House, you’re supposed to be too busy for all this.
But before Barack entered the second half of his second term, his theoretically embarrassing media appearances were “forgivable” because, in almost every case, they had a clear practical purpose. Sure, he held a selfie stick and uttered the word “YOLO,” but his Reddit AMA was a smart election season ploy, and his Galifianakis comedy segment existed only so that he could urge young people to sign up for Obamacare.
Now, with Grylls and Seinfeld, he seems purely to be having fun, like a second-semester high school senior. It feels as though he’s preparing us for his post-presidency self, his life as a private citizen who cracks jokes, takes hikes, reads novels, and drives fancy cars. The Seinfeld bit ends with an acknowledgment by Obama that he usually finishes “these things” with a shameless Obamacare plug—a winking admission that itself is a meta-form of that which it mocks, but it honestly feels only like an afterthought. The Grylls episode relates to climate change (they visit a melting glacier), but here Obama takes on the problem not as a world leader but as an average citizen of Earth, concerned about whether the outdoors will be habitable for his grandchildren.
Obama’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” episode is genuinely the best thing that typically intolerable series has yet to offer: Barack’s superhuman stature forces Jerry to tone down his usual sense of superiority—instead of basking in his own greatness or waiting irritably for a younger comedian to impress him, Seinfeld is inspired to step up his game, ask interesting questions, and even make some jokes. And Obama clearly relishes the opportunity to be a little more sardonic and trivial than his typical persona allows.
I was somewhat less impressed by earnest Bear Grylls’ presidential special. Obama obviously is too precious a cargo to take part in any even mildly risky wilderness behavior—thus negating the concept of the show—and here he lays on the “normal dad-type guy” shtick a little too heavily for my taste, but then again you can believe that he may actually watch “Running Wild” occasionally with his family.
Even so, I don’t believe that Obama is really doing this stuff solely for pleasure. As the national media landscape continues to fracture into smaller chunks, with each consumer occupying his own bubble of niche content, there can be no “dignified” (i.e. unanimously approved) way to speak to the entire nation; the shrewd thing for a politician to do is to embrace niche entertainment, one webisode at a time—to insert himself into the personalized content that consumers hold near and dear. Barack restricts himself, understandably, to a range of basic-educated-liberal products, but within that contemporary middlebrow sensibility, he’s all over the place.
Obama is also showing an awareness of evolving public expectations for celebrity accessibility and (performative) transparency in the age of social media. For the first Internet-savvy president, the final goal of 2016 may be to ensure that we all love him not only as a president but as a relatably particularized, in-touch “person” in accordance with the Internet’s current definition of personhood, which runs counter to the broad, impersonal cowboy symbolism with which Barack’s blank-slate predecessor earned his inexplicable public affection.
Achievements will be forgotten; likability is forever.