There are two broad ways politicians can work with pop culture. They can reference it with meme-dropping tweets or popular dance moves to try and give the impression of being plugged in. Or they can harness a cultural platform’s reach and their own star power to spread their agenda. These two routes are often related: A politician might, say, quote a hit song lyric, and then use the ensuing attention to make a point.
Barack Obama has been particularly deft at this maneuver. Reviewing his White House’s hipness efforts earlier this year, I wrote that both he and Michelle tend to “[create] the impression of edginess while also strategically exercising restraint” and try to “make culture work for them, not the other way around.” You can see those tactics clearly in the president’s new, and maybe last, Tonight Show appearance.
When Obama joined Jimmy Fallon for a “Slow Jam the News” segment in 2012, he took to the stage with the warm affect of a politician smiling for re-election and then recited some campaign talking-points about student loans. Last night, he put on a repeat performance, but this time—as might befit a president with the freedom of having termed out—he maintained a mock-serious face the entire time, as if he suddenly believes what Gretchen Carlson said about his first Slow Jam: that these comedy shows are beneath the presidency.
His slow jam was made up of brags about his eight years in office—the fallen unemployment rate, the legalization of gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, etc.—and a jokey dig at Donald Trump: “Orange is not the new black.” There was no hiding the attempt to shore up his legacy and boost Hillary Clinton, his newly endorsed would-be successor. The only obvious attempt at going viral on Obama’s part came from him ever-so-briefly reciting Rihanna’s “Work,” and, as he has tended to do lately, literally dropping the mic.
The rest of the entertainment value came from Fallon, capitalizing on the frisson of being next to the president of the United States as he played racy. He bellowed the following words: “Oh yeah, President Obama stimulated long-term growth, in both the public and private sector. In 2008, the country wasn’t feeling in the mood, it was too tired and stressed, said it had a headache. Barack lit some candles and got some silky satin sheets and told the American people ‘yes, we can.’” He also said this: “He’s accomplished a lot in eight years, even when Congress tried to block him, he found a way in the back door,” to which Obama replied with a choreographed look of disapproval. In a more excellent and less controversy-baiting moment, Fallon called Obama “the Prez dispenser.”
During the interview portion of the show, Obama maintained his usual stance toward celebrities like Fallon: friendly but dismissive. He seemed horrified to learn that he was the first sitting president to be on The Tonight Show’s New York set, and he said that in all his time in office, no one has been more awkward upon meeting Obama than Fallon was. During a segment where the host and Obama wrote thank you cards, Fallon took a sharp jab at the presumptive Democratic nominee for president: “Thank you, Hillary Clinton, for possibly becoming the first f...president. I would have said ‘female’ but someone deleted the ‘emale.’” Obama barely acknowledged the joke, but he did then snap at The Roots to start playing music—another instance of the politician leading entertainers and not the other way around.