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Celebrity in Chief: The Role of Likeability in the American Presidency

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call from the Oval Office, Monday, June 8, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

President Obama was a celebrity even before he ran for president. In 2007, comedy site Barely Political’s music video “Crush on Obama,” lip-synced by “Obama Girl” Amber Lee Ettinger, was one of Newsweek’s top ten videos of the year. The viral video featured an attractive young woman singing about her “crush on Obama.” Included in the song’s lyrics were phrases like “smart, black and sexy, you’re so fine.” In 2008, Shepard Fairey’s iconic rendition of his face seemed to be plastered everywhere. The vibrant, distinctive image popped up on trendy tee shirts and posters. The image has been compared in its quality of instant recognition to Jim Fitzpatrick’s famous Che Guevara poster, and was pronounced by The Guardian’s Laura Burton to be “already an American classic.” Obama was more than a politician. He was a brand. A trend.

While in 2008 celebrity seemed to have been thrust upon Obama, the President has had to work harder to cultivate such appeal. On February 12, Buzzfeed released one of its trademark relatable humor-based videos “Things Everyone Does But Doesn’t Talk About.” The video features President Obama, who agreed to appear in the video in order to encourage young Americans to sign up for health care. In the two-minute video, President Obama makes goofy faces at himself in a mirror, plays around with a selfie stick, practices telling Americans to sign up for health care by February 15 (while charmingly struggling with the pronunciation of “February”), doodles pictures of Michelle and attempts to dunk a large cookie in a glass of milk that is too tiny for it. After failing to submerge the cookie in the milk, the President mutters, “Thanks, Obama.” At the end of the video, the leader of the free world smiles and says, “YOLO, man.”

While Obama has been criticized mercilessly by Republican pundits, who accuse him of diminishing the presidency, the video seems to have been an attempt to cultivate likeability among younger voters. Likeability has become a hallmark in the American political process, making Republicans’ comments ironic, given the fact that President Bush based much of his political career on being the candidate you’d “rather get a beer with.” While Obama is not up for reelection in 2016, appearing relatable to voters, especially young voters, may be instrumental in crafting his legacy and creating momentum for the Democratic Party in 2016. Presumably, as more Americans sign up for healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, the more successful his presidency will appear.

However, using such self-deprecating humor is a relatively new way for the American president to appeal to his constituency. The level of respect and nearly sacrosanct invulnerability enjoyed by the American president has undergone an extreme evolution since Washington. This can be partially attributed to the development of modern media.

Before the invention and popularization of the radio, Americans could really only learn about what their presidents were doing by reading about it in newspapers and government documents. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began addressing the American people directly through his famous fireside chats in 1933, he revolutionized the voice of the president. Before these chats, the American people mainly read about their president’s agenda and the state of government affairs in text. Now, the president had a friendly and familiar voice they could count on hearing fairly regularly. With this added dimension, the president became less of an idea and more of a real person. While FDR had a more personal relationship with his constituents than his predecessors, there was still much he kept personal that would be impossible today. Whether or not a “gentleman’s agreement” existed between the FDR administration and the press to hide the president’s confinement to a wheelchair, many Americans were not aware that their president could not walk.

The widespread use of television changed the game again – one of the most common examples being whether the results of the 1960 election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon would have been the same had the debates not been televised. If Kennedy had not appeared so much more poised, charismatic and attractive than his opponent, would the vote tally have been the same? If so, this raises another question: Had a humanized and personal image of the president been available to voters since Washington, what else would have been different? Would voters still have elected Lincoln, despite his ugly face and reportedly shrill voice?

Kennedy’s “political package”—charisma, American good looks and elegant wife—allowed him to not only be the president but also an American icon. Kennedy, and his family, represented an image to which many Americans aspired. It is perhaps for this reason that while historians and political scientists question Kennedy’s efficacy as president, public opinion of him remains, and always was, high.

Now the American people are closer to the president than ever before. Voters can evaluate the likeability and of their presidents not only by listening to their voices directly and watching their personal affects as they speak, but also through the latest Internet meme. New technology means presidents have to deal with a whole new dimension in the process of packaging and self-marketing. This only matters, of course, insofar as a president’s packaging matters. Some would argue that an ideal world is one in which citizens vote for presidents based purely on their policy agendas. In that world, packaging does not matter at all, and the extent to which presidents focus on cultivating a likeable image is a waste of valuable time that they could be spending drafting legislation or negotiating with Congress. However, the role of the president as a figurehead is not to be underestimated. For many Americans, Roosevelt’s fireside chats were a much needed morale booster during one of the darkest times in American history. Having a likeable and relatable president should not be underestimated—it can greatly increase one’s feelings of security and trust in government. The challenge comes in finding the fine line between time spent on cultivating likeability, and time spent on policymaking. A president who appears to be expending too much time and effort trying to be likeable, after all, will be anything but that. President Obama’s legacy will be somewhat dependent on the success of policy initiatives like Obamacare. Perhaps Obama’s self-deprecating humor and “YOLO-ing” is a calculated policy move, instead of just a political package.

About the Author

Emma Axelrod '18 is a senior staff writer for the Brown Political Review.