In the halcyon days of pre-election 2008, Barack Obama wasn’t just a presidential hopeful — he was a bona fide phenomenon. But Obama’s cultural caché came from an unlikely place, at least for a politician. From his exotic background to his youthful, energetic campaign to those shirtless bodysurfing pictures, the Democratic nominee just seemed, well, cool. He took Michelle to see Do the Right Thing on their very first date! He wouldn’t shut up about how much he loved The Wire! He even smoked — which, yes, is bad and gross, but nevertheless is something that a lot of cool people do. No wonder John McCain’s campaign once called Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world.” They meant it as a slight, but like any number of Hollywood hotshots, Obama seemed to simply ooze awesome.
Four years later, the bloom is off the rose. The American people are now better acquainted with the real Barack Obama — and it turns out that he’s not actually the political equivalent of Arthur Fonzarelli. (Or whoever the kids are into these days.) Instead, Obama is a textbook example of an archetype on the rise: the Cool Dad.
As the name implies, Cool Dads aren’t like the painfully unhip parents who often pop up on TV. They listen to jazz, blues, and unobjectionable hip-hop (Obama’s a fan of Miles Davis and Jay-Z), claim allegiance to classic films that have a bit of an edge (the president cites One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Godfather parts I and II as favorites), and keep in shape by playing real sports rather than huffing and puffing on an elliptical (Obama loves a good game of pick-up basketball.)
But Cool Dads are still dads at heart. They wear frumpy pants and make cheesy, terrible jokes, like that “spilled milk” line during this year’s State of the Union address. (Though Obama followed his whiff with a wide grin and an embarrassed chuckle, it was met with audible groans.) They don’t approve of the Kardashians, whom Obama has banned from the White House’s TV sets. They’re unapologetic about watching cartoons with their kids; Obama told EW that his daughters got him hooked on SpongeBob. And though they strive for cultural relevance, Cool Dads are always just a little out of touch: When Obama appeared on The View in 2009, Joy Behar asked him a question about Snooki. The president’s response? “I gotta admit, I don’t know who Snooki is.” Granted, maybe he has more important things to do than watch Jersey Shore.
Cool Dads do have one advantage over The Youngs, though — they’re not afraid to risk looking goofy. Each year, Obama gleefully tears into Where the Wild Things Are at the annual Easter Egg Roll — and each year, his enthusiastic performance brings the White House down. His impromptu Al Green performance at the Apollo was also classic Cool Dad: great to watch as long as you’re not related to him, but probably mortifying for Sasha and Malia.
Maybe, then, Obama’s reelection campaign should try shining a spotlight on the president’s essential dadosity. After all, wouldn’t you rather vote for Phil Dunphy than The Fonz?