As we approach the 100 day mark of President Barack Obama’s administration, an army of pundits and the horses they rode in on are assessing the new president’s political successes and failures. Among the residual and nascent conflagrations Obama is addressing are a global recession and financial meltdown, military flashpoints including Iraq and Afghanistan, and a flu outbreak of a particularly swinish variety. And yet, there is much more to this man than politics.
Obama is also a cultural icon who seems to appeal most to those typically politically marginalized but culturally attuned: young people, minorities, creative types. It has been said that Obama is the first “hip” president (though some Clinton people may argue), the first to have an awareness of the nuances of the various strains of popular culture and how they come together and influence each other.
In commemoration of this president’s unique relationship with our culture – dude appears shirtless on a magazine cover, too bad he wasn’t Twittering at the time – over the next few days a scintillating selection of Blogcritics writers unwind the complex thread that Barack Hussein Obama – right after “Mao Saddam Hitler” among least likely U.S. presidential names – has already woven into our national fabric.
Barack Obama, Chia Pet
What do Barack Obama and Mr. T have in common (other than the obvious skin shading and gender)? They are the only two (actual) people that have been made into Chia Pets. What’s a Chia Pet? Thanks for asking. You’ve seen them in late night commercials. They are terra cotta colored clay miniature sculptures of animals and other things, that you cover with a slurry of “chia” seed and water—and viola! Watch them grow. Sheep, bunnies, dinosaurs, puppies, kittens… and now, President Barack Obama.
Of course Obama isn’t the first luminary to have been honored with being Chia-ed. There’s Garfield and Scooby Do. Oh, and two human-ish heads, one of which (called Chia Professor) resembles the frizzy-haired father of modern physics Albert Einstein (if you squint really hard).
It’s a rather seedy way to cash in on the Obama sensation. Even the commercial is cheesier than the usual “Chi-Chi-Chi-Chia!” commercial. To be honest, if you happen to catch one during a late night comedy show, you would swear it had to be a satire advertisement (and not a very good one).
The official “Chia Obama” website, greets you with the banner “Hail to the Chi-chi-chi-Chief” and gives you the choice of ordering serious-looking “Determined Chia Obama” or the grinning “Happy Chia Obama.” Chia Obama grows its chia (reportedly the chia seeds are a very healthy herb, full of Omega-3) into a full-blown (but not blow-dried) ’Fro.
But wait! There’s more. Click on “take our online survey” and vote on what you’d like to see next in the Chia “Proud to be an American” series of Chia planters. Imagine Chia JFK, Chia Sitting Bull, Chia Mount Rushmore (sold as four separate Chia busts designed to be fitted together to make one giant Chia-mountain).
One can debate whether introducing this Chia Obma “Special Edition” is an honor, an offense or simply the one of the more bizarre entries into this little chia slice of “as seen on TV” pop culture. But it was evidently an idea that failed to grow on at least one segment of consumers. Originally sold at Walgreens Drug Stores, the product, introduced April 1, was removed from brick-and-mortar store shelves a week later when the company was bombarded with complaints that Chia Obama was not simply in bad taste but racially offensive. Of course, the product became immediately available on eBay and other places — at a much-inflated price.
Bad taste? Perhaps. But so are dozens of other equally-annoying “commemoratives.” Offensive? Maybe. Racist? Unlikely. Joseph Pedott, Chicago native and founder of the San Francisco-based Joseph Enterprises, who manufactures all Chia products (and lots of those other “seen on TV” offers like “The Clapper”), says the Obama Chia was meant to show pride in the 44th president.
One can only imagine the original pitch to introduce the Obama Chia. “Hey, here’s an idea. Obama’s dark-skinned like our clay and has hair that’s simply made for those nutritious chia seeds. Obama’s practically ‘made for chia.’ We’ll make a killing!” But, alas, only on the Internet. Chia Obama will not soon be “coming to a store near you.”
Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: Obama at the Movies
In September of 2008, as Americans were gathering the data that would help them make an informed decision at the polls during November's presidential election, CBS News anchor Katie Couric cut right to the chase and asked Senators John McCain and Barack Obama some hard-hitting questions. Among those questions was one which I personally use to gauge the worthiness of any presidential candidate (or prospective friend): What is your favorite movie of all time?
Obama's response to this question was a safe one as far as choices go: "Oh, I think it would have to be The Godfather. One and Two. Three not so much. That saga — I love that movie."
As do lots of other people. Widely considered to be a masterpiece of modern America cinema, Francis Ford Coppola's sprawling epic has woven itself firmly into the fabric of American culture, becoming one of the most widely-quoted, well-loved films of all time, transcending and eclipsing its mediocre source material completely. Obama also gets it right when he picks the first two but "not so much" the third, although I think the third, in spite of its overwrought ending, is necessary because that's where we see the chickens come home to roost.
One of the many reasons The Godfather works so well is that we're brought into this very insular world in which the inhabitants live according to their own implacable and complicated set of rules. We don't really see them living in our world, and therefore we don't need to judge them according to our usual moral standards. This is what allows us to be drawn into the story, and it's why we're able to see the characters as sympathetic in spite of their lifestyle.
An overarching theme of family strength and family loyalty is woven throughout the story, and given Obama's own commitment to family it's not surprising that he'd find some resonance here. Perhaps an armchair psychologist might find some currency in the film's strong patriarchial tone — women are of little or no importance in this world — given the President's own largely absent father and a life surrounded by strong and capable women.
The story's central character, of course, the one in whom we become primarily invested, is Michael Corleone, played to perfection by Al Pacino. Michael is the character with an actual story arc. When we first meet him, he's fresh from college – an idealistic young man whose future seems to lie in a different direction from that of his immigrant father (the President has a foreign-born father as well, but not one who molded his world the way Vito Corleone molds that of his sons).
Michael refuses to be drawn into the family business, and in fact the family itself considers him the one to break out into respectability. But as well we know, he does indeed enter the family business, and in spite of his intentions to "legitimize" the family's interests, he gets his hands just as dirty as his father's and his brother's before him. Eventually he does manage a veneer of legitimacy, but he out-dons the Don in the process. Once the family business sucks you in, there's no turning back, idealism or no.
Obama came to the presidency with just such idealism. Promising to clean house and work for change, he's currently learning that Washington is not a welcoming place for idealists. Old ways of doing business are firmly entrenched. Politics is business as usual, and a dirty business it is. Money talks louder than most people's idealism. The question that we can't answer at this point in time is a big one: Will Obama's story arc follow Michael's? Is idealism always fated to die at the hands of greed or might this have a better outcome?
So there we have it. Our new president's favorite movie offers some interesting (if not very serious) comparisons to his own life circumstances. Maybe there's something to all of this, or maybe sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
When pressed during the interview to explain his choice further, Obama told Couric, "I mean there's this combination of old world gentility and ritual, with this savagery underneath. It's all about family. So it's a great movie."
Hmm… "old world gentility and ritual, with this savagery underneath." Sounds a little like politics, if you ask me.
The Nation Has a New Face – So Does TV
President Obama knows how to work a room, and well he should. Born in 1961, he’s the first President of the United States who cannot remember a time before television. I Love Lucy was already in syndication when he was born. NBC was experimenting with color TV, most notably via Bonanza. And on a related pop culture note, the so-called Marvel Age of comics was born when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby released the first issue of The Fantastic Four.
JFK may have been the first president to utilize the power of the then-new medium (notably in his televised debate with Nixon), but Obama is the first to be a child of it, fully immersed in it, and fully in control of it.
Let me rephrase that: no mere mortal is in control of what Harlan Ellison dubbed “the glass teat.” Television has always been ruled, in one way or another, by corporate bean counters. It exists, not to entertain, but to sell product. “Product” can be anything from hygiene accessories to political messages, and often, the two are so subtly intertwined, the guy sitting at home on the couch doesn’t realize he’s been had. The political climate of any given time sells those commercials.
Thus, in the past eight years or so, we’ve been barraged with commercials treating everything from household insecticides to baby wipes as articles of urban warfare. And the programming that accompanies them has had that same take-no-prisoners attitude. 24 is a glaring example, extolling as it did, the virtues of torture in the name of the greater good. Dexter, too, made serial killing acceptable, if it was done in the name of justice. Comedies, even game shows, fell under the us-or-them spell.
The winds of politics and culture are fickle, and a storm of change is in the air. We’re already seeing it. President Obama personifies cool, with his swagga and his almost Spock-like way of expressing his thoughts. His approval rating hovers around 60%, and Michelle’s is even higher. And it has as much to do with style as politics. What America craves now is a whisper from the darkness that things will get better.
I have no idea what Obama watched as a child, but it’s not hard to imagine he spent more than a few hours with Star Trek, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Dream of Jeannie, and even The Wild, Wild West. We do know that these days these days, the president is a fan of HBO’s Entourage, which is not too surprising, since it revolves around an aspiring actor and his friends beating the odds in Hollywood.
Obama was also a regular viewer of the now defunct The Wire. Considering the series’ gritty portrayal of urban life and sociopolitical issues, it stands to reason he would be a devotee the show. But the president also enjoys Hannah Montana and SpongeBob Squarepants with daughters Malia and Sasha. And of course, his love of ESPN’s SportsCenter is well documented.
Obviously, even the President has no control over the whims of network programming – that’s more the province of the almighty 18-49
demographic (which Obama falls into.) But we have a First Family that has already become a barometer of the state of pop culture. Michelle has an even higher approval rating than Barack, due in no small part to her no nonsense fashion sense and her dedication to education, the daughters are always adorable, and even Bo the puppy has elevated a little known breed to superstardom. Barack, of course, is just cool—urban hip, confident, with an air of reserve and detachment when it matters, yet with a fighter’s instinct smoldering beneath it all.
With that kind of popularity (not to mention the street cred to back it up), the President will have at least an indirect influence on television programming over the coming years. I don’t think it will be anything revolutionary, but I do believe that we’ll see a return to stylish storytelling, and well thought-out scripts. We’re already seeing a shift in crime shows, returning to characterization and motivation as opposed to the dry procedurals that we’ve endured over the past years.
NBC’s newest entry in the field, Southland, works because it portrays the cops and the bad guys as players on the same game board. The Mentalist, on CBS, emphasizes the smug self-assurance of the lead character, rather than any kick-ass attributes. Show that were once favorites, like 24, seem hopelessly dated now, remnants of a Bush-Cheney agenda that didn’t work.
It’s not that Obama has a television agenda – if he did, the cable news channels would be in dire straits, since he never watches them. Conversely, ESPN would be top of the pops. But his election reflects a shift in the American psyche. We’ve become a little more aware of the world around us—maybe too aware in some ways. With the economy a major daily concern and new wars always lurking on the horizon, we’re going to expect more substantial entertainment delivered to our homes.
Expect more wit and social commentary on the tube in the future, particularly in dramas and comedies. And don’t be surprised to see so-called reality shows drop in popularity. We have enough reality—we’re craving old-fashioned entertainment. As the President would say, “Change is coming.”
Tomorrow: Sportsman-in-Chief, Dirt Off His Shoulders, The Obama Book Club, The Power of Words