Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

What Is Cool?


(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, 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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

Follow us

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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