In a segment for James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series that aired last night, Michelle Obama told the late-night host that this was one of the only times she’s been near the steering wheel of an automobile since arriving at the White House: “I’ve been in a car maybe months ago with my daughter who learned to drive, and we rocked out with her. But that was the only time in seven and a half years that I’ve been in the passenger seat, listening to music, rocking out like this.”
It’s one little anecdote that does so much: remind of how long we’ve all lived with this first family, of the isolating conditions they exist in, and also of their relatability as parents, as teenagers, and as people who love belting Beyoncé on their commute. The exchange also provides a near metaphor for what Michelle Obama has done with this instantly viral Late Late Show segment. She’s technically in the passenger seat, but really, she’s driving the car.
The Obamas have had a closer, more symbiotic relationship with pop culture than any first family before them. The risks and rewards of remaining a staple on the talk-show circuit, or of starting up a Snapchat account, or of making rappers and pop singers regular White House visitors, are obvious: cultural buzz can be political power, but one wrong move and embarrassment shall be swift. Yet memorable media mishaps have been mostly absent for the last two terms. As I argued around the time of the Hamilton cast’s White House appearance, the Obamas exercise a lot of strategic restraint in these matters. Always, they try to make pop-culture serve them, rather than the other way around.