The most-tweeted moment of President Obama's State of the Union was when he mentioned the show Mad Men. In talking about wage disparities between men and women, Obama said, to great laughter, "It is time to do away with policies that belong in a Mad Men episode." In making the reference, President Obama knew what he was doing. The reference generated 34,000 tweets, and is likely to be the most remembered part of the speech in the years to come. It is also part of Obama's successful and continual use of pop culture as a political tool.
Obama And Pop Culture
Obama often make political jokes with pop culture themes. He has even made jokes thematically similar to the Mad Men jape. In the summer of 2012, he belittled the Republican National Convention as "a re-run," adding, "We've seen it before. You might as well have watched it on a black-and-white TV." Interestingly, Obama himself is a product of the black-and-white TV, Mad Men era. One of the reasons he has cited for his liking Mad Men is that it "explains my grandparents, their tastes."
More broadly, Obama grew up watching a great deal of television in the 1960s and 1970s. His own memoir Dreams from My Father records that after coming home from school, "I would watch cartoons and sitcom reruns. Homework would be done in time for dinner, which we ate in front of the television. There I would stay for the rest of the evening . . . At ten o'clock, I went to my room . . . and I would go to sleep to the sounds of Top 40 music on the radio."
Obama's TV-watching habits have continued into adulthood. In addition to Mad Men and to being a big fan of ESPN, he has also watched or watches Breaking Bad, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage, Modern Family, and The Wire (which he calls "one of the best shows of all time"). Much of this watching takes place after Michelle and the girls go to bad, between 10 PM and 1AM.
How Obama Uses Pop Culture Successfully
It is precisely this heavy pop culture background that allows Obama to use pop culture to political advantage in a number of ways. First, as the Mad Men comment shows, he connects to his audiences via cultural references. Fewer and fewer people are watching the State of the Union, and most Americans are unaware of the details of his health plan, but people perk up when he's talking about a TV show or a popular movie.
Obama also regularly appears in pop culture venues. He is the first president to appear on late night talk shows as president. (Bill Clinton's famous Arsenio Hall appearance was before the 1992 election). He is also ready to be less that presidential in these venues. He "slow jammed" the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where Fallon called Obama the "Preezy of the United Steezy." In the summer of 2012, he went on a New Mexico radio station to tell the DJs that he likes green chili over red, enjoys working out to Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe, and that his superpower of choice would be the ability to speak any language. He has also appeared multiple times on Oprah and The View.
In addition to appearing on popular TV shows to spread his message, Obama also maintains close contact with celebrities themselves. These celebrities help him look cool, but they also bring with them practical advantages. George Clooney earned the title "Mr. Obama's biggest bankroller," and Eva Longoria was co-chairman of his 2012 campaign. At a Hollywood fundraiser in February 2012, he exhorted those assembled, saying: "I'm going to need you. You're going to carry this thing like you did in 2008."
America's celebrities and cultural creators do more than open their wallets to Obama. They also serve as validators. We can see this in the case of Mad Men itself. When asked about the State of the Union reference, show creator Matt Weiner told New York Times culture Reporter Dave Itzkoff that he "supports the president" and that he's "honored that our show is part of a much-needed national conversation." Republicans who try this often get spanked, however. When Ann Romney revealed that she liked Modern Family, she was rebuked by co-creator Steve Levitan. Levitan tweeted in response to Mrs. Romney that: "We'll offer her the role of officiant at Mitch & Cam's wedding. As soon as it's legal."
Milking the pop culture is not a risk-free strategy. Celebrity behavior often brings with it potential perils that presidents need to keep in mind. Furthermore, many Americans are uncomfortable with some of the excesses of pop culture (Grammy Awards, anyone?). And despite Mad Men's cultural cachet, it only brings in about 2.5 million viewers, a small fraction of the electorate. It is likely, however, that Obama has looked at these issues and recognized that for him, the benefits of his pop culture strategy far outweigh the disadvantages.