The Corner

The Life of Julia

I don’t think I have ever seen a cultural artifact that so desperately begs to be parodied and ridiculed, and is so ill-suited to the audience it is intended to reach, as the Obama campaign’s “Life of Julia.” If you haven’t seen it yet, you really need to.

From the overarching narrative of drab dependency to the comically blunt and clumsy contrasts with Romney, the utterly unironic pseudo-edginess (“Julia starts her own web business”), the self-caricaturing lifestyle liberalism (“this allows her to volunteer at a community garden”), the un-self-conscious intermixing of the vocabularies of liberty and entitlement (“thanks to Obamacare, her health insurance is required to cover birth control”), the imagery of studied nonchalance, and the whole look and feel of the enterprise, it appears to have been created by people deeply immersed in the culture of overeducated twenty-something hipster self-effacement but unaware that it is all intended sarcastically. It’s like Portlandia earnestly offered up as a drama.

It’s not just that each of its elements can be easily parodied, it’s that every single one of them is a perfectly common feature of contemporary satire, and the whole thing — right down to the fact that it is a web slideshow that can be very easily aped by countless clever and tech-savvy smart-alecks sitting underemployed in front of computers right now — feels like a joke and yet isn’t.

It’s going to be very very difficult for the purveyors of knowing sarcasm in the hipster-industrial complex to resist this provocation, even though openly mocking Barack Obama will feel uneasy and unnatural at first. And that’s what could make this a genuine misstep for the Obama campaign: Obama’s 2008 campaign was very careful to keep itself on the side of the culture of cool, so that the agents of that culture would turn their guns against John McCain but mostly lay off Obama, even as he offered up embarrassingly vapid nonsense about turning back the oceans. If they begin to make the culture of cool uneasy about Obama, and increasingly comfortable treating him (as it is inclined to treat everyone) as a self-important windbag, they could do serious damage to his standing with precisely the intended audience of the Life of Julia: young liberals, who must turn out in uncharacteristically large numbers if Obama is to have a decent chance of re-election. If those young liberals come to see the president not as a cool modern idealist in on the joke but as a bloviating panderer who buys his own shtick, he’s in big trouble. If you puncture Obama’s balloon, there is not much left of him, and he seems to be running the risk of puncturing that balloon himself.  

Above all, though, the Life of Julia is deeply telling of the view of American life underlying contemporary progressivism. Mitt Romney has taken to describing President Obama’s vision of America as one of a government-centered society. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect illustration of what he means than this.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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