It was fun. It was odd. It was just a little bit . . . unseemly.
During a visit to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Obama and late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon pushed the president’s plan to preserve low student-loan rates through a rhythmic rendering of his talking points set to music. Fallon, playing a one-man Greek chorus, interspersed commentary, such as: “Aw yeah, you should listen to the president. Or as I like to call him, the Preezy of the United Steezy.”
It was, shall we say, a tad unusual for a sitting president. Wannabes will do nearly anything, as we’ve observed. But this particular skit went beyond the usual horn-tooting a la Bill Clinton — or even the awkward stand-up “Top Tens” that many candidates, including Mitt Romney, have endured for the sake of the sacrosanct “youth vote.”
One could argue that Obama’s Fallon appearance was quite well done, which it was — for that sort of thing. The president played straight man and said or did nothing objectionable. He was, in a word, presidential, to the extent one can be under such circumstances. Even at the end when he said, “Oh yeah,” it was . . . cool.
Yet the effect was nearly narcotic, so strange that cognitive dissonance doesn’t quite describe it. One had the uneasy feeling that something wrong was happening. The lead grown-up isn’t supposed to act that way.
On the other hand, as we who argue with ourselves like to say, if you can get kids to learn multiplication tables by setting them to rap, why not push student-loan relief with a little R&B? Maybe because you’re the Preezy of the United Steezy?
That Obama is a cool drink is no one’s revelation. He’s the ice tinkling in the glass. He’s Muhammad Ali to Romney’s, well, Romney. It’s hard to come up with a more quintessential un-cool guy than the presumptive Republican nominee. What can you do? There’s no book for cool, though if there were, Romney would have memorized and distilled it to a PowerPoint presentation.
Then again, who really cares? Once you’re beyond a certain age, cool becomes as attractive as a 60-year-old in jeggings. Young folks do get that you’re not actually young or cool, nor do they really want you to be.
Some of us learned this lesson along that garden path called Parenthood. The cool parents might be fun for an overnight — you can get away with more — but it’s nice to have a grown-up at home. Even the youth of America appreciate a grown-up in the White House. And though Obama is unfairly blessed with charm, pizazz and a natural athlete’s grace, he does not benefit necessarily from playing well with comics. The line is extra fine between humorous and silly.
That Romney couldn’t pull it off as well may be a surprise gift. He looked sadly uncomfortable while going through the paces with David Letterman, painfully reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman modeling scuba gear for his parents’ cocktail party. Then again, that may have been the only way to play it. Serious adults don’t do silly well.
The GOP is obviously mindful of the coolness gap and has issued a video ad in response to Obama’s late-night foray titled “A Tale of Two Leaders.” The ad juxtaposes Obama’s slow jam with Romney’s general-election kickoff speech that is both earnest and heartfelt. It does not hurt that Romney’s voice at times could be mistaken for Ronald Reagan’s. Implicit in the message (and the voice): Take your pick. Grown-up or cool dude?
The answer should be obvious except for the fact that many consider the president grown-up enough. His play-alongs are just for fun, after all, though overplaying one’s cool hand is risky as the very adult business of economic survival looms ever more ominously. A candidate’s or an incumbent’s popularity with the young will hardly assuage voter angst come November.
In the meantime, Obama would do well to pay attention to another comedian whose gravitas may be greater than the president’s among the late-night demographic. Said Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart: “You’re the president. You don’t have to do this [expletive] anymore.”
As for Romney, his safest bet is being proudly nerdy. As the cool know too well, nerds usually win in the end.