The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter beef and viral videos have become part of presidential campaigning. Thanks, Obama.

Obama's social media game and pop-culture prowess brought a new level of cool to the White House -- and no candidate has been able to match it.

Obama’s signature swag has changed the Oval Office forever. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

America’s newest reality-TV star, Barack Obama, has been on a swagger kick lately. Last week, he jabbed adventurer Bear Grylls on camera for being “a mediocre cook,” after Obama nibbled on some salmon (half-eaten by a bear) that the Brit had found. This year, Obama also has said the n-word – the whole word — on a podcast and ordered the White House to be lit up in rainbow colors on the heels of the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling. That came after he snapped a selfie and gave a “YOLO” shrug while starring in his own BuzzFeed comedy video.

It’s all pretty daring behavior for a leader of the free world, but Obama is used to it. In an A+ presidential moment with no Fs to give, Obama joked at the White House Press Correspondents Association dinner in April that, in the final years of his presidency, he has “something that rhymes with a ‘bucket list’.” He noted some of its contents — executive action on immigration, climate regulations — while saying “bucket” in a way that was friggin’ hilarious. As Obama explained that night: “I feel more loose and relaxed than ever.”

President Obama used Keegan-Michael Key, one half of the "Key and Peele" comedy duo, as his "anger translator" at the 2015 White House correspondents’ dinner. (Video: AP)

By January 2017, much will have been said about Obama’s achievements and legacy. Not to be forgotten while tallying up his political record — killing Osama bin Laden, pushing gay marriage, advancing drone wars, and expanding health-care coverage — is the tidal shift Obama drove in the very nature of the presidency. Call it #POTUSonfleek: presidential style is now as much about being #ThrowbackThursday-savvy as it is about wearing a star-spangled lapel pin. Obama is the first president to deliver a tweet, to write computer programming code, and to use “transgender” in the State of the Union address. To an extent, those firsts are just signs of our times. It’s likely that any person occupying the Oval Office over the past seven years would have pulled off similar historic presidential moments.

Yeah, but that swagger tho.

Obama’s social media game and pop-culture prowess is on par with Hollywood’s. Not only did he make the State of the Union digitally interactive, he perfected the improvised mid-address epic burn. Not only does he use Twitter, he tweets about peas in guacamole, shares his vacation playlist, and gives his two-cents on the latest NBA news.

Many in the 2016 lineup are struggling with the specter cast by this new brand of presidency. Recently, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush got into a Twitter slapfight, Lindsey Graham produced a cellphone-destroying video and Ted Cruz used an assault rifle to cook bacon. Unfortunately, none successfully pulled it off. The Clinton-Bush Twitter battle was transparently orchestrated by social media staffers, the hopelessly stiff Graham looked thirsty for virality, and Cruz lost his play for the Second-Amendment electorate by misidentifying a semi-automatic rifle as a machine gun.

This game doesn’t come naturally to Washington. Clinton, for instance, has been widely mocked for her campaign’s announcement that she’s making plans for more spontaneity. The culture klutzes are haunted by reminders that, at the height of its uncoolness, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign required 22 staffers to sign off on each tweet.

Obama’s own venture into presidential cool started so conventionally that it’s almost quaint today. Just 59 days into his first term, he became the first sitting president to appear on “The Tonight Show,” which has been a benchmark of television culture since it debuted in 1954, during the Eisenhower administration. Not even Ronald Reagan – the actor turned president – sat on the set of the nation’s longest running entertainment program as president.

Obama’s March 2009 appearance was not a one-off. After joking with Jay Leno’s chin about the complexity of the presidential motorcade (“We’ve got the ambulance and then the caboose and then the dog sled, the submarine”) and his White House bowling alley score of 129 (“It’s like Special Olympics or something”), he popped up that year on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” By CBS’s recent count, Obama has appeared thrice each with Leno, Jon Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey; twice each on Letterman and “The View;” and once each with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel — more frequently than he has appeared on Sunday news talk shows. By comparison, the commander in chief has visited troops in Iraq once and in Afghanistan four times.

A look back at some of the president's most notable appearances on the show. (Video: Emily Rhyne/The Washington Post)

He’s also normalized presidential appearances in Internet videos. “Can I live?” Obama asked at the end of his BuzzFeed video/health-care signup plug. His appearance on “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifinakis” was also an elaborate ad for health-care signup. But there are only so many bills you can plug, so eventually Obama showed up just because, in the style of, say, Bill Murray on Letterman, Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, or Justin Timberlake on Fallon. The appearances became so routine that, in June, Obama arrived at the garage of comedian Marc Maron’s California home to record an episode of Maron’s WTF podcast, during which the president said that racism is “not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” WTF indeed.

[Of course Obama should’ve used the n-word]

Most of Obama’s time as president is spent debating the fates of budget plans, trade deals, and international crises. But, increasingly, he has become just as comfortable debating the fate of Jon Snow with “Game of Thrones” director David Nutter or pretending to be Daniel Day-Lewis pretending to be Obama in a Steven Spielberg film. He sings Al Green, sells Made In The USA birth certificate mugs, and flirts with a woman at a voting booth to spite her jealous boyfriend.

Obama’s Secret Service code name is “Renegade.” He has been earning it at least since April 2008, when, during a campaign speech criticizing Hillary Clinton’s “textbook Washington game,” he delivered a kind of cold shoulder Capitol Hill had never seen: He wiped his suit in the manner of Jay Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder move. The result was uproarious ovation. The year before, he made a surprise cameo on a Halloween episode of Saturday Night Live. A man in an Obama mask walked up to Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton; he removed the mask to reveal Obama himself, saying, after 21 seconds of applause, “I have nothing to hide. I enjoy being myself.” He ended with the very important: “I just want the American people to know: Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

What was the pop presidency before this? Richard Nixon on “Laugh-In”? Reagan’s “Star Wars” reference? Bill Clinton playing the saxophone for Arsenio Hall and pretending to blush when a young woman in an MTV town hall meeting asked him if he wore boxers or briefs? Try to make it all the way through George W. Bush’s strained taped cameo on “Deal Or No Deal.”

Obama hasn’t just ingratiated himself to pop culture, he has embedded and entwined himself in it. He raised the bar for the kind of personality we expect of the president. In these vaunted times of pop-up shops, viral videos, and #instafame, Obama has become relatable by acknowledging the presidency for the perpetual celebrity franchise reboot that it is.

Ironically, the embrace of pop culture hasn’t done much for his popularity. To date, Obama’s approval rating peaked in February 2009 at 64 percent, according to the Pew Research Center — even Richard Nixon, in January 1973, was able to score 68 percent approval. But the all-time low in his approval rating (41 percent in November 2013) is the highest low of any president since John F. Kennedy.

This is a president who premiered home-brewed beer at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., White House Honey Brown Ale. So, when asked if he ever inhaled during his marijuana use — a nod to Bill Clinton’s unconvincing dodge — Obama replied that he did and added “I never understood that line. The point was to inhale.” He seems genuinely to take pride in his March Madness picks. And, when people tweet directly to Obama questions as mundane as what music he’s listening to at the moment, he’ll reply with bands as un-focus grouped as The Black Keys and Outkast.

The Oval Office will never be the same. The Obama White House has not only changed the look and feel of the presidency, but also the campaign for it. Obama’s style has created an environment in which we expect our candidates to have Twitter beef, we applaud them for their “quirky” Facebook posts, and we accept their history of wrestling other men for TV entertainment.

Already, there are signs that this effect will continue beyond the 2016 campaign. During the WTF podcast, Obama said, “I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless,” sounding more Kanye than Kennedy. Perhaps it’s that new Oval Office swagger that influenced the rapper’s recent out-of-nowhere announcement that he plans to run for the White House in 2020.

Is it so far-fetched? Already, the 2016 race has a reality-show star as the Republican front runner.

Thanks Obama.

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