Will the United States ever again have a president who drops the mic or a first lady who raps about going to college?
Barack and Michelle Obama are arguably more conversant in popular culture than any other couple that has occupied the White House. And in four months, when his presidency comes to a close, they will depart as full-fledged celebrities, embraced by America’s two arbiters of cool: Hollywood and hip-hop.
It has been a two-way street. The Obamas are lovers of pop culture and have used it to communicate with the public in a way that is rare among political figures. They show up on hit television shows, reference popular music and use the artists who produce it to promote their agenda — all while making it clear they’re in on the game.
Just this summer, President Obama sat on a stool with a deadpan look on his face as he slow-jammed the news with late-night host Jimmy Fallon; it was the president’s second time doing the segment. The first lady hopped in a car with comedian James Corden for his popular “Carpool Karaoke” bit. There she rapped with Missy Elliot to a pop song recorded to support a White House initiative to boost girls’ education. Then they both sang Elliot’s hit “Get Your Freak On.”
For many, the Obamas’ middle-aged hipness has been a breath of fresh air and smart politics.
“The president has always had an appeal beyond the political world, even back to the 2008 campaign when he was brushing his shoulders off,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.
“The job description for how to attain the nation’s highest public office is similar to the job description for show business,” Simmons added. “You’ve got to hit your marks. You’ve got to be a good communicator.”
For others, however, a political figure as entertainer is unseemly. The first time the president slow-jammed the news he was running for reelection, and former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson said that appearing on comedy shows “lowers the status of the office.”
Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at the 2013 Academy Awards to present the Best Picture award via satellite also prompted murmurs.
“She’s as glamorous as any other star, [and] she is comfortable in that role,” Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush and is now an executive-in-residence at American University, said at the time. “As far as the optics in the national conversation, you can see where the other half have come down, ‘Is this really necessary?’ ”
The trendy and often trending Obamas sit at an unprecedented nexus. Social media, which wasn’t a cultural force eight years ago, is now host to the country’s most vigorous conversations, political and otherwise. And urban culture, with its tilt toward black celebrities, dominates the national arts scene.
In many ways, they have been a president and first lady suited for such a cultural moment. Theirs is one of the youngest first families in the nation’s history, and the first African American. As such, they were going to be a different kind of first family no matter what. The couple’s connection to popular culture has only added another layer to that narrative.
Early on, Obama’s political opponents picked up on the risks of his pop-culture cachet. When his wife gave him a fist bump after he secured the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, it was pounced on by critics; a Fox News host wondered whether it was “terrorist fist jab.” Other Americans, who recognized the fist pound from hip-hop culture, rolled their collective eyes at the negative interpretation. Still, it became a distraction to the campaign and confirmed that not all aspects of pop culture are universally understood or accepted.
About that same time, Obama’s Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, ran a campaign ad called “Celeb,” branding Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world” and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The critique lingered: Do you want to talk to famous people, or do you want to solve the problems of a dangerous world?
Obama and his strategists determined the question to be outdated. They thought they could leverage his fame to push their agenda. Just a few months after his inauguration, he made history as the first sitting president to appear on a late-night talk show when he went on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” to push his economic agenda.
“You can’t just do the one print interview or the one sit-down television interview or even the one interview that’s going to be on the Web,” said Jon Lovett, a former Obama speechwriter. “You have to find people where they are, and they are getting their information from a lot of different places, including entertainment.”
“We as a culture have decided that we want our political figures to speak to us through not just totally dry and boring” mediums, he added. “We want to get a sense of them as people through comedy shows and personal interviews, along with everything else.”
Using pop culture to engage his supporters after winning the election was a bold move for Obama. Other presidents had appeared on late-night shows and comedy programs while running for office, but most stopped once they were in the Oval Office.
“Sitting presidents didn’t do that,” said Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Richard Nixon was helped by his appearance on “Laugh-In” as a candidate. Jack Kennedy went on “Tonight Starring Jack Paar” when he ran for office. Bill Clinton memorably played the sax on Arsenio Hall’s show. But other appearances on popular television were few, Thompson said.
Obama kept it going because he and his team thought it played to his strengths, said Stephanie Cutter, who has been a top adviser to both of the Obamas. The late-night appearances “were incredibly effective not just in reaching people, but in communicating that then-Senator Obama was a real person and likable, and that likability and trust went a long way when things got tough, like during the financial crisis,” she said.
The president has a dry wit. Michelle Obama is “just funny,” said Cutter, who helped create the first lady’s Let’s Move! program. “In terms of message delivery, you don’t always have to hit people over the head with a stick. It can come through comedy and skits, [but] not every politician or public figure has the skill set to do it.”
Michelle Obama’s East Wing office has become a kind of White House lab for trying new media. After her 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention, a wide range of media requests started pouring in, Cutter said, and Obama began to develop a broad media profile.
She experimented on social media, posting childhood photos on Instagram. Her number of followers there surpassed the number following the main White House account. And her staff built partnerships with Internet stars on YouTube and Vine, some of whom have come to Washington to make silly videos with the first lady.
“I view myself as being the average woman,” Obama told Variety this summer. “While I am first lady, I wasn’t first lady my whole life. I’m a product of pop culture. I’m a consumer of pop culture, and I know what resonates with people. I know what they’ll get a chuckle out of and what they think is kind of silly. And whenever my team approaches me with ideas and concepts, we’re usually like, ‘Is this really funny? Are people going to understand it?’ ”
The president has given his wife credit for taking chances. Before he sat down with Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns” to make a pitch for young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, the first lady had a push-up contest with Ellen DeGeneres to promote fitness.
“Michelle understood this earlier, because she had fewer resources,” the president said in the New York Times magazine this year. “You have to leverage different platforms because a fireside chat just gets lost in the noise today. People aren’t part of one conversation; they’re part of a million. You’re drawing on where the culture is to get the message out.”
Obama should know: Within hours of the “Between Two Ferns” episode, more than 19,000 people had visited HealthCare.gov. That bit, the president said, drew more young people to sign up for health care than any other pitch.
That success emboldened his administration to continue using nontraditional platforms to discuss serious issues. Last year, Obama visited Marc Maron’s garage to tape an episode of the comedian’s popular “WTF” podcast, where he shared his views on terrorism, gun control and racism.
The Obamas’ methods for communicating with the country have changed expectations for how a president and first lady should act, said Amanda Miller Littlejohn, a public relations and personal branding consultant.
Indeed, when the Obamas leave the White House, the president’s Twitter handle, @POTUS will be deeded to the winner of the election. So will the White House Instagram account. The future of the @FLOTUS account may depend on whether there’s a first lady rather than a first gentleman in the East Wing after the election.
“You saw the White House in the past as being this untouchable, unrelatable institution,” Miller Littlejohn said, adding that pop culture and the presidency may now be permanently linked.
The 2016 race for president, too, has reflected this. Republican nominee Donald Trump has been a reality television star and is known for his voracious use of Twitter. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton recently penned an essay for Teen Vogue, she took a selfie last year with celebrity couple Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and she’s earned a reputation for pointedly trolling Trump on Twitter.
Read more on President Obama’s arts legacy