By now, President Obama’s viral appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis is etched into collective political culture and, with March Madness underway, “Barack-etology” is beginning to seize a slice of media focus. The President’s choice to engage in a goofy spoof interview to promote the Affordable Care Act and reveal his NCAA bracket selections on ESPN are just the latest in a long list of examples that attempt to bridge the Presidential with the public (a list that includes: hosting MythBusters, dancing with Ellen, joking on nearly every late-night comedy show, and of course making the infamous “not impressed” face while posing with Mckalya Maroney, among others). And while Two Ferns was conceived to appeal specifically to young Americans, a vital, yet under-enrolled demographic in the health care marketplace, Obama’s actions reach beyond the millennium crowd. His self-deprecation, humor, and indulgence in common cultural activities render Obama personable and relatable across generations and even political affiliations. In other words, President Obama is cool.
However vague, “cool” can generally be watered down to the same characteristics: To be cool is to be collected, down-to-earth, and competent. At the underbelly of cool is a sense of at least marginal esteem, a quality evident anywhere from the large crowds at any of President Obama’s speeches to the photograph of the president comforting victims of Hurricane Sandy with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. This admiration certainly grips voters, especially young ones, into President Obama’s corner. And though President Obama’s “coolness” is generally discussed within the frame of the election season, or in this case, health-care enrollments, there is an understated political power to this identity that is worth discussing.
For how much the presidency is anchored in tangible duties and procedures, it is also a highly symbolic position. We want the so-called “Leader of the Free World” to embody certain characteristics in identity (Traditionally these identities are limited to white, male, Christian etc.) and in personality (we desire a President that is a reflection of mass American culture and norms). So, when President Obama occupies attention in distinctly non-political and American ways, such as in variety shows or sports, he satisfies so much of our symbolic needs.
This attention has the power to then split rhetoric towards the Obama administration. On one hand you have harsh and often unfounded criticism from the right that claims Obama is anywhere from a traitor to a conspirator against the sanctity of the Presidential Office and the United States. One the other you have those on the left who are often quick to fall back on the President’s symbolic coolness in lieu of any sensible critique to his more dubious policies, such as his deportation record or lack of clarity on the Keystone XL pipeline.
To rectify this divide, I do not think President Obama should seize participation in fun, popular activities-that would be both absurd and negligent of the power these instances have to connect the public to politicians. For one, I can’t tell you how excited I was to find out that the president and I both picked Michigan State to win it all. Rather we, the consumers of politics and policies, should take note of the way politicians perform their positions and approach these actions with a nuanced eye able to appreciate, admire and critique.
Maura Hallisey is a 2013 graduate of Connecticut College where she studied Film Studies, Sociology, and Public Policy, with a concentration of gender in the media. She currently works at a history museum in Hartford, CT and is a fanatic of running, biking and sharks.