President Obama's presence in popular culture is hard to miss. He "slow jammed" the news on Jimmy Fallon's late night show. He has appeared annually on ESPN to offer his picks for the NCAA basketball tournament. And even his wife First Lady Michelle Obama has gotten in on the act by appearing on popular shows like iCarly, Sesame Street and just about every cooking and home improvement show.
President Obama has had and is having an influence on mass market entertainment (witness the White House effort to bring "positive stories" about the – ahem – joys of Obamacare to your favorite prime time shows). But has popular culture influenced President Obama? And what about other presidents? Have other commanders-in-chief been as deeply immersed in what's on TV and in the movie theatres as Obama? For answers to these questions, we can thank author Tevi Troy and his latest book What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 years of popular culture in the White House (Regnery).
As Troy recounts about Obama's background, the current occupant of the White House was the proverbial pop-culture kid. He watched TV after school, he watched TV with his grandfather at dinner, he watched TV alone, and he fell asleep at night listening to top 40 radio. President Bill Clinton was no slouch in terms of his pop culture presence. (Remember Clinton's saxophone performance on Arsenio Hall or his answering the burning "boxers or briefs" question on MTV?) But before he was seen on TV, he was a consumer of TV – though very different stuff than Obama. As Clinton himself explained it, he liked watching Elvis, but he was riveted by the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. So while Obama's tastes ran to Star Trek, Clinton could honestly claim that he was hooked on politics early.
Of course, whether our presidents were formed by television or rock n roll, reading by firelight or listening to classical music doesn't tell us much about their ability to be good leaders as Troy ably notes. "Throughout American history, Troy explains, "presidents have tried to use culture and new means of communication in order to project the image of the ideal leader. Over time, those cultural interactions have become less formal, more immediate, and less deliberative. Perhaps these changes have made sense as presidents evolved from founders of the republic to its custodians. But perhaps we have lost a sense of purpose, of grandiosity, and of leadership."
We do know for certain that it has become increasingly important to be up on new technology and new media. That's why Obama took to Twitter and Reddit at various times to make his case to those segments of the population using those media. And that is another development to recognize, the broadening of our culture outlets has meant that the president can use various media to tailor his message to the segment he needs to convince. This may be the new reality, but it means that there is less culture that the vast majority of us share in common. Troy suggests that the presidency is one of the last few shared touchstones we have.