Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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