On another level, Hamilton’s storyline spotlights the kind of oft-thwarted battle for progress—and to marry idealism with pragmatism—that has often agonized Obama’s supporters after hopey-changey 2008. Gopnik argued that Miranda had completed a long-brewing transition in historical interpretation among liberals from aligning themselves with Thomas Jefferson to aligning themselves with Hamilton:
... a Hamiltonian liberal is an ex-revolutionary who believes that the small, detailed procedural efforts of the federal government to seed and promote prosperity are the ideal use of the executive role. Triumphs of this kind, as the show demonstrates, are so subtle and manifold as to often be largely invisible—and are most often as baffling and infuriating to those whom the change is designed to serve as they are to those whom the compromises are meant to placate. [...] If Hamilton’s program could be reduced to a phrase, after all, it would simply be that the national government should try, directly or indirectly, to loan money to manufacturers. Obama’s efforts and triumphs in this direction have been, as Hamiltonian ones often are, obscured, but real.
Gopnik suggested that Miranda ended up offering this Obama-friendly message less by design than by intuition. If you look around at the major politically themed works of culture in the past seven years, you often find a similar focus on process, competence, and incremental change for the common good. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln showed one of the most idealized presidents in bargaining mode; Zero Dark Thirty portrayed the defeat of Osama bin Laden as the result of scut work; even the cynical House of Cards has fun imagining a Democratic president murdering ideology in pursuit of concrete policy achievements. It’s not far-fetched to speculate that these are the sorts of works that result when Hollywood watches the charismatic force it helped elect labor unspectacularly, day after day, against gridlock.
Hamilton at the White House also stands as an example of the work that the Obamas have done to recognize hip-hop’s cultural centrality. Embracing rap has never been a politically neutral act, both because of lyrical content but also, many of the genre’s fans would argue, because of ingrained attitudes about race and class in much of the country. But Obama’s ’08 campaign involved the support of rappers and provided an iconic moment when Obama borrowed Jay Z’s “Dirt Off Ya Shoulders” move. In 2011, he invited the rapper Common to a White House poetry event, causing some backlash from conservatives despite the fact that Common is among the least controversial emcees imaginable.
A Washington Post column in 2015 by Erik Nielson and Travis L. Gosa argued that after the Common criticism, Obama backed away from rap, spotlighting no hip-hop in his 2012 campaign playlist and forgoing rap shows in the White House. This may well have been the case—an example of Obama’s caution about overdoing things when engaging pop culture. But in recent months, he’s shown his rap fandom again. Earlier this year, Obama invited Kendrick Lamar to the Oval Office after naming “How Much a Dollar Cost,” a deep cut on To Pimp a Butterfly, one of his favorite songs of 2015. Wale has performed at multiple presidential events. These gestures have gone appreciated in the rap world. On Instagram, the rapper Fabolous wrote:
Hip-hop used to be a political scapegoat, the black cat of America, the reason for everything wrong even while being the largest growing music and the corporate world getting rich off our style, jingles and consumers. We watched hip-hop become a universal language through all its backlash and ridicule. And Obama was the first President to even take pictures with our favorite artists, invite them to the White House, even drop lines in his speeches.
If there’s anything that underlines the idea of hip-hop as a newly universal language, it’s Hamilton—both the musical itself and its conquest of the Great White Way and the White House. To say Obama is responsible for the wider shift in America that has enabled Hamilton’s success would be incorrect, of course. He is a beneficiary of that shift, and he has in turn, subtly, helped it progress further. The best digital artifact to have come from the Hamilton cast’s D.C. visit is probably the video of Miranda freestyling based on cue-cards held by the president. Miranda, as is always the case, is frenetic, flustered, and brilliant. Obama puts in minimal energy, acting impressed but not too impressed. He knows what he’s giving and getting by simply participating. He only drops the facade for a moment, at the end: “You think that’s going viral? That’s going viral.”