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

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

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