Barack Obama recently dropped his year-end list of favorite books, movies, and television shows, and judging by the outpour of thirsty comments, this ritualized enchantment seems to trigger a combination of unshakable reverence and anticipation as something like an automatic response. Adoring fans interject with gratitude for his recommendations then recede with the “correct” opinion about pop culture. Or they feel validated because he listens to the same Jhené Aiko album as them. Obama’s annual curations are a perfect amalgam of middlebrow, urbanite taste, but they have ascended into a reified bellwether for prim and preening liberal affectations — and it somehow becomes more omnipresent every time our claustrophobic timeline refreshes. Obama is typically personified as “the pop culture president,” mostly because of his chameleon-like ability to switch modes and tones to blend into varying popular mediums. He has danced with Ellen and cracked jokes with Jerry Seinfeld while driving around the White House grounds. Chapo Trap House’s Matt Christman is more accurate in his assessment — “If Trump is the reality TV president, then Obama is the prestige TV president” — and I want to expand upon his thesis with further detail.
The barrier between entertainment and voting is fully liquidated. Watching a channel or purchasing a streaming service expresses an implicit desire for your cultural values to be manifested. This lies in the political figures we exalt and the celebrities who emerge from pop culture. Obama and prestige TV applaud themselves from the apex of cosmopolitan self-assurance: If indulging in both are marks of an enlightened worldview, then it’s evident why Lib America considers this nauseous iteration of the Democratic Party as great as it could possibly be.
When television consisted of three networks broadcasting soap operas, westerns, and cartoons for a largely (white) suburban audience, they were serving banal and totalizing programming designed to grab gobs of eyeballs so they could sell soap and beer. Immediately, this established a truism that television could never be a challenging artistic medium: There’s no money in making something people don’t want to watch. A show is, by definition, spoon-feeding its audience whatever glib sentimentality is necessary to keep the ratings up and the seasons renewed.
HBO came around in the mid-1970s, and its initial pitch was basically, shows about as good as a mid-tier sitcom BUT with swearing and nudity. Tanner ’88, Oz, The Sopranos, and The Wire were their first attempts at appealing to a higher-brow audience with their social commentaries and bounded kitchen-sink melodramas. With a fee-based entertainment model entrenched, studio executives understood that its profitability depended on offering a superior product to network television. And the “quality” of these shows would be determined by an almost exclusively college-educated audience with the means to spend on entertainment.
A recap cottage industry sprung up around these types of shows, operating on high-fructose twitchiness and codifying a new standard of quality within the entertainment industry while edifying the heavy pomp that surrounds it. Even on its own peculiar advertorial terms, these types of think-pieces and media deconstructions did nothing more strenuous than remind us of things we may or may not have missed while we were scrolling our smartphones as Game of Thrones played in the background. A decent chunk of these streaming series aren’t particularly gripping cinema on their own, but they’ve produced a feedback loop of people paying for these shows, people talking about these shows, these shows continuing to air, rip-offs being made, an entire genre of programming established, and culture moving forward. The people who watch, produce, and write about these programs are almost exclusively college-educated. This became prestige TV, and on a cultural level, it is synchronized and synonymous with the Democratic base.
To paraphrase Christman’s observation:
Shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men featured the tortured, sociopathic anti-hero, the Luciferian selfishness that drives American society. They are a distorted, exaggerated reflection of ourselves. Maybe we would be as conniving as Tony Soprano if we inherited a mob fortune; or more ruthless if we were as skilled with chemicals as Walter White; or more manipulative if we were as handsome as Don Draper. Obama lived his life like a prestige TV anti-hero, a political expression of the cultivated cosmopolitan college-educated liberal. Maybe we would be Barack Obama if we were blankly devoted to our legacy and pursued the highest office in the land.
Obama’s presidency, a strange combination of grace and collateral cruelty, was a reflection of his warped righteousness. In the 2008 election, John McCain released an attack ad called “Celeb” with images of Obama being greeted like a Coachella headliner intercut with photos of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, beginning with a portentous note: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?” He glided through his two terms fully invested in the notion that the fundamental machinery of exploitation is unalterable, and the best we can do is find our place within the gears.
Obama is ultimately driven to express himself. That much should’ve been obvious during his post-presidency stints as a Netflix producer or a Spotify curator, but the self-flattering fables within A Promised Land should be luridly revelatory. A month prior to the memoir’s release, The New Yorker published a section regarding the negotiations behind the Affordable Care Act. It was both a paean to Getting Things Done and a reprimand to the pesky and idealistic cranks on the left who pine for impossibilities like boilerplate social democracy as practiced in literally every other developed nation. The text is strewn with tacit admissions of his party’s progressive flank being correct on the merits of policy prescriptions and critiques of mainstream Democratic ideology. But a familiar sprawling narrative lies behind the overstuffed storytelling itinerary and his deference to the system. Obama’s darndest efforts to pass the most progressive policy possible was thwarted by roiling, hard-edged, and often ruthless interests, so we should be grateful that an even desultory healthcare bill was passed at all. He appeared on Between the Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis to promote this signature legislation, which could be both a testament to his pop culture acumen or an indictment of his overriding narcissism, depending on how cynically you examine it.
Obama’s singular presence is still at the heart of his memoirs — even when you strip away the pop-mysticism. It’s almost as if he lives his entire life in the third-person, creating an impression of personal enrichment to conceal his core desire to be acknowledged and ratified by power. Wielding that power would, of course, be naive and unrealistic since Obama exists to serve a system that hovers beyond his influence. Everything else is secondary to maintaining faith in the American project. “I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America,” he writes in another excerpt published in The Atlantic, “not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind.” His insights are like something monumental and monumentally grandiose and maybe even a little predictable, if not saccharine.
Obama operates from a belief that the darkness that lurks within the most rancid and revanchist aspects of American culture can be conquered with steely reserve. Or, more morbidly or mundanely, that any political contention is a symptom of immaturity. “I understand why there were times where my supporters wanted me to be more pugilistic, to, you know, pop folks in the head and duke it out a little bit more,” he told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes. “Every president brings a certain temperament to office. I think part of the reason I got elected was because I sent a message that fundamentally I believe the American people are good and decent, and that politics doesn’t have to be some cage match in — in which everybody is — is going at each other’s throats and that we can agree without being disagreeable.” He justifies and sanctifies his decisions on these terms because anyone with congruent cultural wiring would’ve maintained a similar outlook. To his party’s loyalists, Obama’s implacable virtue blunted the worst of the post-Recession epoch, even as the economy lurches toward a gigified hellscape.
In order to offload a sense of total complicity in the most monstrous facets of American life, a sophisticate might deploy irony to condemn themselves while not really condemning themselves. This is an empty form of self-awareness. It can be seen in Obama’s coolly virtuosic nihilism; a Marvel superhero or Star Wars character self-deprecating during scenes that should be fraught with dramatic tension; the hyperreal feeling that Stranger Things is more ’80s than almost any show from that decade. This sort of fourth-wall-breaking meta-irony is a defense mechanism against criticism, one that anticipates and incorporates impending reactions into a cultural product or a strain of politics.
In A Promised Land, Obama casts some self-doubt over his conviction and ability to lead America toward a stated destination, a preemptive response to the more disparaging retrospectives of his time in the Oval Office. He does so by invoking Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural appeal to our better angels. Of course, Lincoln made that address after assuring the South he had no interest in waging a moral crusade against slavery and would reconcile the seceding states if they eschewed violence. That unified America would’ve been far from a promised land. In an era of starkening polarization, Obama and the broader Democratic machinery place their hopes in the dream of transcending our political battles instead of the possibility of winning them.
Reality TV is the anthesis of prestige TV — the free, but an “uncouth” and “gauche” form of entertainment for the non-college-educated folk more reluctant to pay for streaming services. It has working-class pastiche and pazazz. Network television responded to the pressures of fee-based entertainment by hyper-exploiting the concept of watching a pack of lumpy fame-remoras just being themselves, gilded and blustering and fragile, both strident and utterly bereft of any artistic element.
Eventually, an attention-hungry Apprentice host parlayed his experience of sitting in his high-backed leather chair and making executive decisions into the presidency. The culture built around this programming finally found its avatar: A man who’s only talent in life is his thermonuclear obnoxiousness. His specific brand of exhausting and exhaustive grievance rattled America like a sudden supernova eruption, blank and bright and signifying fire and fury, with nothing but raw umbrage underneath it all. Trump mirrored the razzmatazz hype, the full-spectrum aggression, the faux-controversy of the World Wrestling Federation with nicknames like “Little Marco,” stadium rallies, smackdown one-liners, and bombastic merch. The New York Times once reported he advised aides “to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” As president, Trump made some compelling surrealist kayfabe from this perspective: The picture of him posing in front of hundreds of “hamberders” stacked to resemble a banquet is something from another dimension.
The way Obama performs certain cultural frills creates the same psychic identification with liberals as Trump does with conservatives. The Beltway is still very much Reagan’s America in the sense that most contentions over macroeconomics have been eradicated from bipartisan debate. Instead, each party appeals to two broad, but distinct archetypes of an American voter, divided by geography and a package of aesthetic preferences. The Democratic Party cohered around the Obama consensus, which has sputtered without a clear successor; the Betos and the Buttigeges and the Bookers of the world look as much like derivative rehashes as they do off-brand Baracks. This reinforces a politics bereft of boldness but brimming with pandering, as voters elect leaders who strive not to affect policy outcomes, but to serve as avatars of themselves in power.
Obama’s spiritual rendering of America’s turn toward material vanity and Trumpism might explain why, beyond sheer egotism, why he’s set on remaining an active narrator and promoter of his own story. This howling void might be partially filled, he asserts, by uplifting role models who can fundamentally alter someone’s moral code. “The John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter,” Obama told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, referring to the classic male hero. “There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that. There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully — in fact, he defends the vulnerable against bullies.”
If you squint hard enough at the contrasting appeal of Obama and Bernie Sanders, you’ll see an immediate difference between gesturing at vague progressive-ish ideals and prescribing concrete solutions to our material ills. The Democratic Party and prestige TV culture converge at their shared ability to both mollycoddle their audiences and their total refusal to accept their own limitations. We live in a restrictive reality built around the general impossibility of telling our own stories that are anything but the ones that more powerful interests want to be told under certain circumstances.
A show like The Handmaid’s Tell can vividly and poignantly express the female struggle under a dystopic Christian theocracy, and even inspire costumed protests against ultra-restrictive anti-choice bills or Amy Comey Barret’s nomination, but it can’t resolve these struggles because it can never be anything other than a product of an entertainment superstructure. When Democrats promise to “restore the soul of America” or “unify a divided nation,” they never really clarify what that means or how they will do so. Their stubborn reluctance to fundamentally repair a system that has led to this flailing predicament, one that is antithetical to these purported ideals, is especially jarring. But this bland rhetoric flatters the liberal self-conception of their intrinsic superiority over their more unruly counterparts, so it’s good enough.
There’s something stilted and funereal about all this. There are people at extremely lucrative media posts whose entire job consists of blinking and seeming personally offended by something another person blurts about, say, The Boys. Or they try to convince casual viewers that a popular television series can emanate an extractable and compounding social vector towards good or evil that could lure us away from the gravitational pull of our moral instruction. In the crowded corners of Twitter where it feels like a vibrating hornet’s nest buzzing all day and all night, attenuated screen-centric neurotics who probably breeze through Hulu like setting a car radio on “scan” absolutely lose their shit about TV stuff so trivial and mundane that it seems doubly strange and disconnected. This runs parallel to the blue-checkmark MSNBC-types who will scold you for criticizing the Democrats before an election, or after a presidential or midterm defeat, or when the GOP takes power and acts in typical crypto-fascist Scrooge McDuck fashion — this is all, of course, axiomatically detrimental to the Blue Team and helps the other guys. All of this riffraff comes across as pointless compensation for the overwhelming bummer gravity of this moment.
We’ve built this Jenga tower of self-conception out of refining our media-palette and Voting Blue No Matter Who because everyone is either on a tenterhook of precarity or caged like little hamsters, and the ability to improve society has never felt more grasping. The distance between a passive spectacle and a more profound and revelatory experience is why the all-devouring media hype surrounding prestige TV or elections can come off as grating and exasperating. Obama is an expression of politics-by-consumption much like our media diet: Both contribute to a way of constructing our own sense of goodness without taking any direct action to change anything. Until we start reaching for a grander moral transcendence, we’ll be stuck with a politics and culture that is little more than an expression of our own narrow narcissism.