Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Is Cool?

obama-between-two-ferns

(Photo: Funny or Die)

Obama’s Cool

• March 14, 2014 • 5:00 AM

(Photo: Funny or Die)

The president’s appearance on Between Two Ferns is just another part of a well-crafted and ever-present image.

The office of the presidency usually attracts a sort of dadcore archetype. Think of George W. Bush, the reformed party-kid who you’d “love to get a beer with,” even if you thought he was a war criminal. Think of Bill Clinton, charming as a hairy dog, playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show and, in a true suburban-American-father move, carrying on a bizarre affair with a much younger intern. Think of Ronald Reagan, a former actor, constantly suggesting that halcyon past—a fantasy for men who, unlike Reagan, couldn’t turn their youthful accomplishments into middle-aged progress.

But Barack Obama is the first president since John F. Kennedy—an Irish Sinatra, a man who may have had more in common with the movie stars of his time than he has any other American chief executive—to be legitimately cool. Since his trailblazing, Web-centric campaign, leading to the first win in 2008, Obama has been an icon of youth and evolution for the presidency. Between the basketball playing, the status as a rap-lyrics fixture, and being married to Michelle, he has become something more than the average charismatic politician. What with the rise of normcore, he can even rationalize away the dad jeans.

The reception to his celebrity, and the times it manifests itself in his behavior, can’t exist on a plane of interest and disinterest, like it does for actors, musicians, and socialites. Instead, it consists of reactions.

Obama’s cool push peaked this week with an appearance on Between Two Ferns, Zach Galifianakis’ Funny or Die “talk” show, in which Galifianakis usually picks a fight with, brutally antagonizes, or is brutally antagonized by his guests. Obama played along, mocking Galifianakis, absorbing his share of broadsides, and still fitting in a plug for healthcare.gov, which, in a savvy move, was treated with plenty of meta-acknowledgement. From a policy perspective, it seems to have worked—19,000 people were referred to the website from the video, as of the publishing of this Bloomberg Businessweek article Tuesday. (If you’re interested, New York has a strong play-by-play of how it got done.)

Reaction to the video has, unsurprisingly, divided along party lines. Liberals thought it was funny. Bill O’Reilly said Abraham Lincoln would’ve never appeared on Funny or Die, which is such an insane thing to say on so many levels that it’s almost brilliant. However, New York’s Jonathan Chait, a leading liberal commentator, got at something a little farther below the surface that has clearly been bothering people: the idea that Obama’s appearance on a Funny or Die video, trading barbs with a legitimately funny comedian, violates the dignity of the presidency. David Graham at The Atlantic further explains the irritation: This is another example of Obama using the alternative media, comedy, and other unconventional means to get his message across rather than resorting to the traditional press.

Like the constant paradigm of dad-ness that has characterized the presidency, this is nothing new; Obama using viral videos and BuzzFeed to make his point isn’t any different than FDR resorting to fireside chats, as Julia R. Azari, a political scientist at Marquette, wrote. There is another element that helps explains the range of reaction, though, that, like JFK, Obama has cultivated. More than any presidential couple since Jack and Jackie, Obama and Michelle are celebrities. They have thrust themselves into the arena of cool and uncool, and that means, like Hollywood It-Girls, they are subject to its weird whims and unpredictable taste.

Because the Obamas aren’t going anywhere—Barack’s president until 2016, whether you think he’s a cool dude or not—the reception to his celebrity, and the times it manifests itself in his behavior, can’t exist on a plane of interest and disinterest, like it does for actors, musicians, and socialites. Instead, it consists of reactions. When Obama appears on Between Two Ferns and stunts all over the Hangover movies, you have no choice but to pick a side. He is, after all, the most polarizing president of the modern era.

Regardless of your side, though, you are now thinking about health care. And you’re thinking about it, not in reference to a janky website or your own political preconceptions, but as part of a well-made sketch on a successful comedy website founded in part by Will Ferrell. (And it is pretty funny, especially in comparison to the material you often get from these types of politics/entertainment integrations. Obama’s no Al Franken, but his timing is solid.)

The president has always understood, and gets now more than ever, the way that he can use his cool, and the opportunities it affords him, to sell his policies and his persona to the general public. He also understands the way it makes his opponents and critics look when they rail against the video. And to a young electorate raised on the Internet, it’s maybe the last thing his detractors want: they look old.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

More From Kevin Lincoln

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.