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.