The Campaign Spot

The Post Cold-War Celebrity President

Also in today’s Jolt, a look at why the way the public evaluates presidents today is so different from a generation ago:

The End of the Cold War and the Triumph of the Cool Pop-Culture Celebrity President

One of my recurring one-liners is that voters shouldn’t decide their president based upon which guy the Black-Eyed Peas are singing about. This is less about that particular group than the phenomenon of which candidate is deemed more “cool,” and which political figure inspires the most admiration from our national arbiters of “cool,” i.e., movie stars, musicians, and . . . er, professional athletes.

A couple of readers disagree that Obama’s 2008 win was driven by enthusiastic celebrity endorsements and the aura of pop-culture coolness around him, and undoubtedly there were quite a few factors.

Let’s turn the clock back to 1962: Every American, and perhaps almost everyone in the world, goes through a near-death experience as the United States and the Soviet Union nearly come to war over missiles based in Cuba. Americans flock to churches fearing the End of the World; the experience is seared into the memories of people old enough to grasp how close everyone came to the end of everything.

Look at the men nominated by the parties between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, George H. W. Bush.

Some of these men had potent political charisma, but most didn’t. Most were older, most had been in national politics for a while and were perceived as well-established leaders, and most had served during World War Two in one form or another.

The two biggest differences between the world I grew up in — from the late 70s to the early 90s — and today are the disappearance of the Cold War and the emergence of the Internet. You don’t realize the intensity of the Cold War’s impact on our political culture until you marvel at how quickly dynamics and expectations changed after it ended. In America after 1962, every time you went into the polling place for a president, you were looking for a man (yes, only men in those years, other than Geraldine Ferraro being a heartbeat away from the presidency) who you would trust to be in the Oval Office when the tense call from the Pentagon came in: “Mr. President, we’ve detected sudden movement in the Warsaw Pact forces and the Soviets have bombers in the air.” The decisions the president made in those moments could literally mean the difference between life and death for millions of Americans.

Sure, you had Richard Nixon taping a several-second appearance on Laugh-In and the occasional frivolity, but by and large picking a president was treated with great seriousness by most Americans, because nothing short of civilization as we know it depended upon the man in that chair being able to make the right call.

The Berlin Wall comes down in 1989, and within three years, Bill Clinton is wearing shades and playing his saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Think about it, this wasn’t even a network late-night talk show; this was syndicated. The notion of any of the Cold War-era candidates attempting to pitch themselves in this manner is pretty unthinkable.

But within a decade, our political culture had gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, with a slew of wacky personas, perhaps better suited for popular culture than governing, running major bids, or winning high office, like the two major bids for H. Ross Perot, or Jesse Ventura’s winning bid as governor of Minnesota. Guys like John Edwards started getting elected to the Senate; folks who had never been elected statewide, like former ambassador Alan Keyes, and former Education Undersecretary Gary Bauer, or folks who had never run for anything before, like publisher Steve Forbes and former White House speechwriter Pat Buchanan, started running for president, and being treated as at least somewhat serious candidates. Whatever you think of these particular figures, we can agree they would be unelectable to a position of major national responsibility during a tense time period like the Cold War.

The pop culture stuff — the cameos on Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show, the celebrity guests at rallies, the appearances on non-news programs — used to be the frosting on the cake of a campaign. Now it’s the cake.

Research by political scientists in 2006 summarized:

There are several characteristics about the audience of The Daily Show worth noting. First, they are young. Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 years watch the program more than any other age group. Data from the Pew Research Center (2004b) show that almost half of those surveyed in this age group (47.7%) watch The Daily Show at least occasionally. The percentage declines precipitously as age increases.

Second, these same youth are relying less on mainstream political news sources such as network news, newspapers, and newsmagazines (Davis & Owen, 1998; Pew Research Center, 2004b). From 1994 to 2004, the 18- to 24-year-old age group spent 16 fewer minutes on average following news on a daily basis (35 as opposed to 51 minutes). A full 25% reported that they pay no attention at all to hard news.

Significantly, only 23% of regular Daily Show viewers report that they followed “hard news” closely. Finally, although The Daily Show is not intended to be a legitimate news source, over half (54%) of young adults in this age group reported that they got at least some news about the 2004 presidential campaign from comedy programs such as The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. Only 15% of Americans over the age of 45 years reported learning something about the campaign from the same sources (Pew Research Center, 2004a).

Now, I love political satire and comedy. But news parodies are not news.

And now you have a candidate who is a ubiquitous pop-cultural phenomenon:

National Journal asks how Obama is “defying gravity” in the polls and concludes his relatively strong position is “rooted in voters’ dimming expectations for the economy and the federal government.”

Perhaps. But I think they’re underestimating how much Obama and his team have either adapted to changing expectations of the president, or accelerated the change in those expectations, by reinventing the role of president as a permanent pop cultural icon. A certain number of Americans who do not watch the news but watch “The View” see the president on that show, joking about himself as “eye candy” and like him. They see him on Entertainment Tonight, and Jimmy Fallon, and doing his NCAA bracket picks on SportsCenter, and grilling with Bobby Flay, and so on, and like him because he’s there with the apolitical folks who they like for their comedy, sports coverage, cooking shows, etc.

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