MARCH 3, 2009
If one were to gather together a dozen of our society's key arbiters of cool—ad execs, movie stars, fashion designers, music critics, pollsters, suburban tweens—and instruct them to generate the profile of a "cool" politician, what are the odds that their efforts would result in a gangly, jug-eared, overeducated, workaholic with a fondness for Scrabble? Not to denigrate our freshly minted president, but, when you tick through some of the basics, Barack Obama comes across as an inveterate dork. It's not just that the guy is a double-Ivied academic; he is painfully wonky with hard-core professorial tendencies. If what we've witnessed thus far of his dancing is any indication, he is somewhat rhythmically challenged. His favorite book is Moby-Dick. His favorite TV program growing up was "MASH," though "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was right up there. He has read at least six Harry Potter tomes. Perhaps most damning, he is a collector of comics—Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian—a tidbit that prompted the editor-in-chief of Marvel to publicly enthuse: "This has got to be the coolest thing on Planet Earth for us. The commander-in-chief is actually a nerd-in-chief."
And yet, somehow, this nerd-in-chief has ascended to a level of global cool uninhabited by any of his political forebears. The opening spread of a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, titled "President Rock Star," neatly summarized the situation: "He's bigger than Brangelina, bigger than Beyonc
e: See how our new president has become the biggest celebrity in the world." Indeed, the entire First Family has transfixed the popular culture: How about that four-year-old footage "Entertainment Tonight" obtained of Sasha and Malia? Or the Us Weekly cover of Michelle and Barack? (Not to be confused with the one of Barack and the girls.) At this point, the conversation has moved beyond whether Obama himself possesses that special magic—when "Saturday Night Live" constructs a skit around your chronic coolness, the conventional wisdom is pretty much set—to how expansive his cool coattails will prove. Post-election, there has been contemplation of such questions as whether Obama can make public service cool (possibly), whether he can redefine cool in a way that will be uplifting for young black men (God willing), and whether he can make Washington cool (fat chance).
But, when an individual is propelled to supernova status at such astonishing speed, there are a couple of even more basic questions to consider: How did this happen? Where did this man's cool come from? And what can its roots tell us about how Obama will lead?
Glancing back over the president's life, you notice that he is a latecomer to cool. Far from growing up a smooth, charismatic, or cocky alpha male, "Barry" Obama spent much of his youth conflicted about his mixed-race heritage, confused about where he fit in, and insecure about who he was. In high school and college, he dabbled with some of cool's commonplace talismans—alcohol, cigarettes, drugs—as well as a few more culturally charged ones. In Dreams from My Father, Obama details his search for self, in part a struggle with racial identity and in part a more generic flirtation with angst and disaffection:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.
Ultimately, Obama discarded this model of self. He changed his name from Barry to Barack and traveled from the projects of South Chicago to the villages of Western Kenya in pursuit of a more fulfilling identity. He emerged from this quest with a mellower vibe characterized by easy smiles and a thoughtful, unflappable demeanor. Barry fretted about being cool and therefore wasn't; Barack knew who he was and therefore didn't have to try to be anything. This is the cornerstone of a classic, old-school kind of cool—one based on confidence, nonchalance, and the ability to radiate that you are far too cool to care if others recognize your coolness.
This last quality is a key reason why cool is such a rare commodity in politics. The very nature of the game compels its practitioners to be petitioners, ever bowing and scraping for votes, legislative support, and money. And it is hard to be cool when you are constantly begging. Consider the field's premier pre-Obama phenom of recent times, Bill Clinton. Clinton too was a rock star, a legendary charmer with formidable gifts of persuasion who, through the power and profile of high office, achieved an impressive level of charisma. But Bill was never cool. Despite (or because of) all the sax-playing, underwear chatter, and schmoozing with Hollywood celebs, our forty-second president was too emotive, too eager, too needy. Part of what made him such a devastating retail politician was the sense, telegraphed with every broad grin and elbow clasp, that Clinton craved our love and approval. Similarly, no matter how famous he became, he always presented himself as the starstruck kid from Arkansas who could not believe his great fortune to be mingling with the likes of Barbra Streisand and David Geffen. It was charming. But it was deeply uncool.
Obama, by contrast, displays no such awe or hunger, even when hobnobbing with the shiniest A-listers (Jay-Z, George Clooney, Oprah). Whether it's Scarlett Johansson's gushing support being waved away by Candidate Obama or Beyonc
e getting weepy at the Neighborhood Ball over the sheer awesomeness of President Obama, the upper hand rests always with the gangly guy with jug ears. As Obama assured Us Weekly last February, "I don't really get starstruck."
Far more vitally, Obama convinced millions of regular Americans that supporting him was all about fulfilling our needs, not his. (He also wisely rejected inquiries into his underwear preference.) Now, as he transitions to governing, Obama is aiming to communicate something similar: Fighting for his policies isn't about proving he's right or flexing his political muscle; it's about serving the public. When others don't share his urgency to get "the people's business" done, Obama might show some teeth, as he did at a February 5 speech hawking his stimulus package. (The brow furrowed, the finger wagged, the voice hardened, and there were mocking jabs at Republicans: "Then you get the argument, 'Well, this is not a stimulus bill. This is a spending bill.'" Pause. Look of total exasperation. "What do you think a stimulus is?!") But his is a controlled fire, one that seeks to convey that he does not take the battle personally—that it isn't, ultimately, about him. At a January stimulus meeting with Hill Republicans, the president sanguinely assured those assembled that he knew many of them would beat him up over the bill: "I understand that, and I will watch you on Fox News and feel bad about myself." With that bit of low-key sarcasm, Obama let everyone in the room—and beyond—know that he wouldn't feel bad about himself for one minute. Whatever partisan barbs fly his way, the president intends to remain cool.
It is fitting that much of Barry's journey toward Barack focused on questions of race, because much of Obama's cool has to do with color. Biracial heritage aside, Obama is a black man. And, in this country, black men have long had the edge on cool. As The Washington Post's Donna Britt noted in her December 2006 contribution to the paper's "Being a Black Man" series, "there's cool—and then there's brothercool. ... No other group's identity is as steeped in the necessity of appearing cool, or in the expectation that they instinctively bring coolness to the table." The phenomenon goes beyond the concrete trappings of black culture: the music, the style, the vernacular, the gestures. (Fist bump, anyone?) There is a broader, less tangible aura that black men have long possessed (and that white guys, from Elvis Presley to hip- hopobsessed suburban teens, have long imitated). And, for all the early-campaign debate about whether Obama was "black enough," he channels some of the basic elements of brothercool. He's got the walk. (The swagger is subtle, but it's there.) He's got the talk (more about cadence than lingo—though he has a touch of that too). And, of course, he oozes that fluid selfassurance. ("Confidence is cool's most essential element," Britt observes. "Perhaps that's why black men--for whom the appearance of assurance can be a matter of life or death—so often radiate it.") When Ebony magazine declared Obama one of "The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Time," he joined the exalted ranks of legends such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Tupac, and Michael Jordan. Obama clearly revels in his brothercool image and, just as clearly, recognizes its political appeal. At public events, he has demonstrated his ease with the fist bump, the shoulder brush, and the occasional bit of slang. "We straight," he told a D.C. waitress when settling a recent bill.
Black men, to be sure, do not have a monopoly on cool. But, just as a thought exercise, imagine Obama as a white politician. Wonky, overeducated, idealistic, unflappable, reform-minded, big into basketball, articulate but without the lyrical echoes of the African American pulpit—far from being brothercool, Obama would be ex-senator turned failed presidential candidate Bill Bradley.
Also fueling Obama's cool is the snap, crackle, and pop of youth—particularly noticeable in a field dominated by starchy gray-hairs. The new president may be a middle-aged wonk, but we are frequently reminded that he stays in sync with the younger generation. For starters, there is his endlessly discussed fitness and sports obsession, with an emphasis on hoops—a hip, urban, young man's game if ever there was one. (So much cooler than golf or tennis or even football.) Since the early primary days, we have been treated to a steady stream of stories about the candidate's workouts, pickup games, and scrimmages. (Now and again, he even played with reporters.) The cover of next month's Men's Journal proclaims Obama "jock-in-chief" and promises an insider look at "his moves, his trash talk, & his weekly power basketball game."
As for his pop-cult cred, we have been told repeatedly that The Godfather I and II (but definitely not III) are Obama's top movie picks of all time. His favorite TV show of recent years was HBO's gritty, Baltimore-based epic "The Wire," on which his favorite character was a stickup man named Omar, who made his living ripping off local drug lords. And how many times have we heard that hip-hop mogul Jay-Z is on Obama's iPod? This tidbit is an especially valuable twofer, emphasizing both the president's familiarity with a musical genre anathema to most pols and his love of tech toys. Speaking of tech savvy, Obama has made much of his BlackBerry addiction, and his pioneering Facebook page was but one piece of the social-networking machine credited with mobilizing young voters. It didn't hurt, of course, that Team Obama tapped Chris Hughes, the 25-year-old co-founder of Facebook, to help run its online outreach.
Which brings us to Obama's posse of young 'uns--most notably his chief scribe, 27-year-old Jon Favreau; 24-year-old Eugene Kang, special assistant to the president; and 27-year-old Reggie Love, who, in addition to hovering at Obama's elbow as his "body man," also serves as his morning workout partner and preferred hoops mate. This is not to suggest that Obama favors certain staffers with an eye toward burnishing his image. He is clearly drawn to young people by their energy and idealism—and by his own desire not to feel like a fuddy-duddy. But there can be little doubt that inviting Favreau, Kang, and Love into his inner circle has helped to augment his cool. Press coverage of Favreau (including a spread in The New York Times Sunday Styles section) invariably draws attention to youthful quirks such as his preference for working at Starbucks, his tendency to prank e-mail fellow staffers, and his love of the video game "Rock Band." Even Favreau's worst moment--the Facebook party pic showing him groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton—had a frat-like quality that served to remind everyone just how young he is. Kang, who periodically pops up in pics with Obama--chatting on the plane, golfing in Hawaii--is now so tight with the president that he's referred to as "Reggie Jr. " In The New York Times Magazine's January photo survey of "Obama's People," Kang, dewy-faced and with a long gray scarf swallowing his slight frame, looked to have stepped straight out of a Banana Republic ad.
And what is there left to say about Love? A former basketball and football player for Duke who was signed (then cut) by both the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, Obama's hunky personal aide has developed his own cult following. People magazine named Love one of the most eligible bachelors of 2008, Vanity Fair included him on its "In" list, and ESPN did a minidocumentary on him titled "Chief of Stuff." Obama himself started cracking jokes on the trail about having an aide so much "cooler than the candidate."
But as Obama is surely aware, hanging with Love only boosts his own cool quotient. Every story about Obama banging in the paint alongside Love--not to mention some of Love's pals and former teammates, at least one of whom is now in the NBA—is a feather in the 47-year-old president's virility cap. Shrewdly, Team Obama has been liberal with its media access to Love. In multiple profiles of the infamously hip body man (he received A-1 treatment in the Times), we have learned, among other things, about Love's romantic preferences (a basic knowledge of sports is required), his late-night socializing (on the trail, he was the guy everyone wanted to party with), his tattoo ("MY WORD, MY BOND, MY BOYZ, MY BLOOD"), his enduring affinity for beer pong, and, of course, his role in helping his boss keep up with the hip kids. (It was Love who introduced Obama to the fist bump, Love who gave Obama an iPod for his forty-sixth birthday, and Love who loaded said iPod with Jay-Z and Lil Wayne.)
With a quality as elusive as cool, there is the temptation to assume that it must come naturally—that it cannot be forced or forged. But the dirty little secret of our new president's cool is that no element of it came with ease. Obama achieved his laid-back, too-cool-to-care persona by being a committed grind: He spent years working through his insecurities, learning to control his emotions, and sanding down the rough edges of his personality. Even figuring out whether and how to fully embrace his identity as a black man required effort. As a politician, Obama has taken the cultivation still further, with his cultural savvy and band of young compadres. He is Jay Gatsby minus the criminal history—an unpolished youth who constructed a smoother, more glittering version of himself out of sweat, vision, and force of will.
In that sense, the key attribute that enabled Obama to become cool—his meticulous resolve—is the same one that also makes him kind of a dork. This should provide some measure of comfort to those who now and again wonder whether Obama is in fact too cool to lead, whether his steady reserve signals a chilly detachment from the problems facing the country. His calm charisma may put Obama on the cover of People—but it is still his striving that defines him, and will likely define his administration as well. The upshot is that wonks and intellectuals and other assorted Type-A obsessives across the country can rest easy: Having elected the coolest president in recent memory, we are almost certainly going to get four years of government by nerd.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.