A few times a year, the Internet bestows upon us unofficial holidays of the kind that merit a couple of well-crafted memes, though never a day off work. There’s Unofficial Mean Girls Day, the anniversary of Aaron asking Cady the date, which also happens to be my birthday (“It’s October 3rd”). There’s the Perfect Date, which Miss Rhode Island told us lies on April 25. And then there’s April 30, a national day of mourning for Justin Timberlake’s ramen noodle-like 2000 hairdo as it appears in ‘NSYNC’s video for “It’s Gonna Be Me.” A day that the President of the United States’ social media team decided to join in on this year.
Whoever runs the official, blue-check-mark-endorsed Barack Obama Facebook page is evidently up to speed with their early-aughts boy band references. To commemorate the last day of April, the 40 million people who “like” the president were treated to a photo of Obama checking out something on the iPhone screen of a considerably better-coiffed Timberlake, captioned “It’s gonna be May.” No ACA boosting or plugs for raising the federal minimum wage in sight. Right on cue, various social media outlets went, as the saying goes, apeshit.
Liberal, young’un-beloved guy that he is, it’s not surprising that Obama’s PR takes the form of pop culture references and Instagram captions. The Twitter account that bears his name, for example, regularly scores softball headlines like “The White House Made a Mean Girls Joke on Twitter and It Was Awesome” by captioning a picture of Bo with “Stop trying to make fetch happen.” February saw the solidarity-building, pre-binge-watch plea not to post House of Cards spoilers. And the “It’s gonna be May” photo was actually recycled from an earlier Justin Timberlake reference, to his single “Suit and Tie.” Obama’s not a regular president; he’s a cool president!
Interspersed with more policy-oriented stuff, the scattered pop culture references achieve their desired effect: likes, retweets, and subtle image-burnishing. Whenever I’ve stumbled across a hip-with-the-kids posting — and I almost forgot to include the most important of them all, the Bill Nye-Neil deGrasse Tyson selfie! — it’s typically with a caption like “BEST PRESIDENT EVER” or “AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH” or some variation thereof. The message is simple; for the Cosmos-watching, meme-creating legions of Americans under 40, our president is our president. He doesn’t just have a cute dog. He has a cute dog, an iPhone, and a working knowledge of quotable movies and the TV-watching habits of a generation.
On the one hand, it’s nice to be in the target demo of a politician’s PR army for once. Every president’s got to do his fair share of baby-kissing and hand-shaking. But for once, the schmoozing that comes with selling oneself and one’s ideas for a living is aimed at me, or at least people born a few years ahead or behind me. Not that I’m under any illusions that the Commander in Chief himself is pressing “send tweet”; as Philip Bump has reminded us several times over at The Wire, Obama’s social media accounts are misleadingly run by the nonprofit Organizing for America, not the man himself. The fact still remains that someone, somewhere is attempting to make the President look good by making a direct appeal to Netflix junkies, most of whom haven’t had a head of state we related to within our political lifetimes. Definitely not since Facebook and Twitter came online, in the twilight days of the Bush Administration.
That’s why it took me a while to pinpoint why I find these publicity mini-stunts as uncomfortable as they are flattering. It took a friend joking that Bo makes her forget all about the drones to realize what a few decades of conflating “people who don’t share my values” with “old white dudes who don’t know how to use email” had done to my political mindset. It’s true that most people I profoundly disagree with barely live on the same cultural planet as me. That’s the nature of a media landscape where political opponents are free to sort themselves into Comedy Central (hip) liberals and Fox News (hopelessly unhip) conservatives. And it’s a binary Republicans continue to unwittingly enforce with pathetic campaigns to sway the youth with facial hair and tortoise-shell glasses.
Yet every time a presidential selfie or Twitter dispatch crosses my radar, it’s a reminder that there’s no guarantee that having more in common with Barack Obama than, say, Bill O’Reilly — setting the bar pathetically low here, but bear with me — means there won’t be major differences between us on matters that don’t involve Beyoncé. Matters like whether the use of drones constitutes a human rights abuse, or whether cracking down on whistleblowers is a good use of government resources.
A few social media posts obviously don’t constitute a full-scale propaganda campaign, nor should Organizing for America scrap the Obama Facebook account in favor of a steady stream of bone-dry press releases. Like I said, selling a politician’s ideas is all part of the job, and in the social media age, that means selling the politician himself. Having a PR apparatus that’s particularly good at that job simply calls attention to how little the millennials who voted for Obama have had to grapple with the idea that someone who acts like us, shares our tastes, and tells us as much on the Internet might not automatically be someone who shares our politics.