Throughout his tenure, President Obama has been derided by his critics for spending too much time engaging with pop culture in an “undignified” manner. This is mostly because he occasionally shows up on late-night shows to talk about allegedly frivolous things that he loves, particularly tending towards sports and music.
But this president’s populist strategy has always had a smart element to it — he’s taking his cause directly to the people. And given that he has a higher cool factor than most politicians, why not work it? This is, after all, a nation where the oft-cited (though somewhat misleading) statistic is that more people vote on American Idol than in presidential elections.
Right now, climate change is a reality whose effects are visible all around us (it’s been in the 60s in New York for much of December, Miami is already drowning, etc). Yet weather forecasters chirp on about it as though it’s a pleasant reprieve from the cold and not a sign of impending doom, while the political right wing has its fingers firmly in its ears, fiddling a frightening tune about refugees while the country drowns, or something like that. So a president genuinely concerned with global warming has to come up with more creative ways to get his environmental message across.
Hence last night’s presidential guest appearance on Running Wild With Bear Grylls, the cheesy nature show in which the earnest host takes famous guests on milder versions of his infamously grueling survival trips. With POTUS, there was very little in the way of humiliation or death-defying climbs or stunts, but there was a selfie on a clifftop.
The episode was filmed during POTUS’s earlier trip to Alaska, and the goal of was to educate the public about climate change. He and Grylls did that with one stark reminder: the glacier they were standing on had receded. A lot. It used to be big; now it’s smaller. Again and again, the president underlined his message: climate change is irreversible. There are many problems, Obama said, that he can fix. This is not one of them, at least not once it reaches a certain point. He noted how critical the next decade will be in stopping developments that will be truly dire.
The show served us this episode of grim, survivalist truth with a side of humor. Everyone likes to mock Grylls for his willingness to eat just about anything, so Obama joked with the host about other guests drinking their own urine and rejected the idea of skinny-dipping. “I’ve seen some of the stuff Bear eats, and it’s gotta be something that doesn’t still have its legs and eyes on it,” the president quipped before they dined on a piece of salmon disguised by a bear. He continued: “I want it not to be too recognizable. Bear’s a mediocre cook, but the fact that we ate something recognizable was encouraging. Now, the fact that he told me this was a leftover fish from a bear, I don’t know if that was necessary. He could have just left that out.”
There were many bear jokes throughout the night, including tips on bear encounters, jokes about surprising fornicating bears, and the delightful tidbit that the Secret Service has a phrase for when President Obama dodges their plans: “If I do something unexpected, the phrase we use is, ‘The bear is loose,'” he explained.
As Variety‘s Brian Lowry wrote, the entire episode was low-risk and might have even seemed dull (to those of us who weren’t watching and saying, “Obama is so freaking cool, even if some of his policies suck,” that is), but if it came off as a coarse maneuver, the blame rests firmly on the shoulders of climate-change deniers in the political realm. “After all,” Lowry writes, “if the political climate hadn’t become toxic to the point where climate science is deemed a wholly partisan issue, Obama wouldn’t have to waste time engaging in this sort of endeavor to push the message.”
Yet I’m not sure it would even have been a waste of time if the political will to effect change had already reached critical velocity. Obama spoke specifically, last night, about how visual reality supersedes charts and graphs in its ability to convince people of the facts. He should know a bit about this. Obama is actually leading the way by shoving the unfortunate fact of climate change in the public’s face, and doing so in a palatable way, slipped in under headlines that say things like, “POTUS Won’t Drink Own Pee!”
I can’t be the only person who hopes his post-White House career involves some degree of media exposure, with a message.