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What Is Cool?

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(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.

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