“Can I live?” This brief, rather reductive phrase is uttered by U.S. President Barack Obama at the end of a Feb. 12 video released by BuzzFeed. The video, called “Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About, Featuring President Obama” has a distinct goal of informing the public of the deadline for signing up for health insurance via the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But this statement is framed by the video’s obnoxiously clickbait-y title and the president’s gratuitous use of a “selfie stick.”
For this video, and other similar moves made recently, Obama has been criticized of pandering too heavily to immature pop culture enthusiasts while greater political issues brew. This is no simple critique to address, because we’re only so far into the digital and social media era. Think about it: It was during Obama’s tenure that Twitter handles became a compulsory link to every public figure and group’s title on the internet, TV and radio. But the first thing we can do is let him be clear. Because the above-mentioned video has garnered tens of millions of views across different outlets, it’s likely to have helped certain people whose access to information might not reach as far as a healthcare deadline. Going a bit viral might be more effective than a traditional presidential announcement.
In the same vein, Obama’s recent interview with famous YouTube artists GloZell Green, Hank Green and Bethany Mota was dedicated to politics. Some critics believe that speaking to a woman who once took a bath in Froot Loops is “undignified” for a president. But perhaps shirking dignity for 15 minutes isn’t unequivocally bad, considering that he addressed issues as universally impactful as racial injustice, cyber security and education with an individual whose viewership reaches millions of young people. These viewers might struggle to formulate a comprehensive understanding of such tendentious topics when forced to slog through perpetually developing coverage and dichotomous critique in the mainstream media.
Now, let us be clear. Some of this stuff is tacky. Five consecutive pictures taken with a selfie stick is downright narcissistick (get it?). While the YouTubers who interviewed him asked the important questions, the environment largely lacked gravity, and there was no threat of oppositional follow-up to prevent him from providing squishy, perfunctory responses. His Feb. 6 appearance on the Facebook page Humans of New York, although it told a touching personal story, came just as the photography page began to reach new heights in popularity.
The BuzzFeed video feels like an attempt to disguise Obama’s white-knuckling of healthcare. Obamacare has been a patent component of his presidency, and he’s reminding us of it through a patently positive medium. Most young Americans (the future) will remember Obama as he was visible toward the end of his tenure. His eight years are winding down, and now more than ever, this population is highly accessible through internet media.
Let’s draw a loose comparison to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. FDR was the first to reach the public directly on a regular basis using a relatively new form of media with the radio. With an unproductive U.S. Congress and dense partisanship acting as constant obstacles for the Obama administration, POTUS is reaching out in a comparably direct manner by identifying the most effective and popular style and genre of media and using his charisma and a little bit of pandering to establish a relatable image.
But is he going too far? We love when Obama slow-jams the news and gives a relaxed interview among our nations most revered celebrities. We love to watch him nail 3-pointers, and we love to learn that he appreciates his single mother as much as those of us with similar upbringings love ours. Those selfies felt strained, and I truly doubt the president has interest in any of the YouTubers who interviewed him. The best advice we can think of that should naturally free up time for more dignified political matters and simultaneously charm America was already given to Obama at the end of his BuzzFeed feature: Don’t pander to the lowest common denominator of the internet, and instead, “you do you.”