Is Barack Obama cooler than JFK?

Cool-man-der in chief.
Cool-man-der in chief.
Image: Reuters/Eric Miller
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This question originally appeared on Quora: Is President Obama one of the most on-trend presidents the White House has seen thus far? What other presidents have been as attuned to pop culture? Answer by Stephanie Vardavas, Obama delegate, 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Remember that he’s quite young, compared to most presidents. He was born in 1961, which means he will turn 55 this year, and he was only 47 when he was elected.

It’s really only fair to compare him to other presidents in the modern era of mass media/culture, which basically covers my lifetime (I was born in 1956). The only other president that young in my lifetime has been president Kennedy, elected at age 43. So let’s look at the comparison.

Popular culture was different then, and Kennedy had a couple of compelling “coolness” attributes.

One, he was already famous for being glamorous and handsome before becoming president; he was an honest-to-God WWII hero, came from enormous wealth, and had a even more glamorous, elegant, patrician wife and two tiny but adorable children. Second, his brother-in-law and good friend, Peter Lawford, was a Hollywood actor who ran with the Brat Pack. And let’s not forget that president Kennedy boffed Marilyn Monroe and at least one gangster moll, Judith Campbell Exner.

But Kennedy got to serve less than three years in office before being assassinated, and served during a period when the Cold War was heating up (remember the space race and the Cuban missile crisis). So he had fewer opportunities to demonstrate his coolness to the American people, and in fairness the American people weren’t looking for that from him. They wanted gravitas. They wanted to feel protected. The presidential media entourage catered to this culture by pointedly not reporting on the president’s sexual indiscretions and other details of his personal life, so the general public knew less about him than we’ve learned about any subsequent president. He did do events where he was allowed to exhibit his charm and personality but they were far more tightly controlled than would be possible today.

Also, in 1961-63 there was little youth culture to speak of. Sneaker culture didn’t exist. The civil rights movement was beginning to bubble to the surface in mainstream consciousness, but black people were segregated away from white people and discriminated against all over America. Parents dressed their children like miniature adults (not like today, when so many adults dress like giant children), Elvis was the King, lots of people still didn’t have TV sets, and the Beatles didn’t land at JFK until 1964. Just about everybody either was, or convincingly acted, more serious and adult than would be considered normal today.

President Obama was just a toddler when president Kennedy was assassinated.

So, fast forward to 2009. The internet, a supremely efficient vector for many-to-many communication, is a part of most Americans’ lives. Many Americans are carrying smartphones with digital cameras and are able to create and publish a record of every event in their daily lives if they wish to do so. Black Americans are still discriminated against, but mass popular culture is much more integrated and egalitarian than business or politics. The black-player-dominated NBA is in a period of ascendancy. Rap and hiphop music are mainstream and dominant/preferred forms of entertainment even among many white kids. The internet, music, movies, ubiquitous TV, and video games have democratized popular culture in a way the people of 1964 would never have recognized.

Along comes a youthful, vigorous, brilliant black man, with a lively interest in popular culture (especially sports and music) as well as the serious issues of the day. He gets elected president—TWICE! He has the additional good fortune to be married to a brilliant and beautiful black woman who has a strong interest in the arts and health, complementing his interests neatly. He arrives at the White House in the context of a popular culture of unprecedented vigor, diversity—even blackness, near-universal distribution, and potency as a force in American life.

As president he has access to this culture and its avatars, and the pressures of the job are such that he seeks release in sports, music, and other elements of the culture as often as he can, and the power of the job is that he can—by simple request—gain the social companionship of those who create it. He plays basketball for fun. He listens to rap and hip-hop, and is authentically knowledgeable enough to make inside jokes about it. He was elected in the post-post-Watergate, post-Clinton media environment, where everything he does is fair game for journalists and bloggers to write about. And the journalists are younger, the bloggers younger yet. The rules are gone. We have a 24 hour news and social media cycle now, and the maw needs to get fed, so a lot more “soft” news finds its way into our feeds, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or CNN.

So you have a kind of perfect storm here.

A relatively young, hip president, with a native-level grasp of social media and popular culture. An amateur and professional corps of writers and videographers who need to generate content all day long. They are chasing eyeballs, not “relevance,” so the gatekeepers from the old days (like the editorial staff of The New York Times) are no longer deciding which stories are important and which are not. We’re getting it all shoveled at us, and it’s up to us to decide how much we want to consume. Because we are only human, we’d often rather watch a video of him hanging out with Steph Curry than read a story about his meeting with Bibi Netanyahu. That’s how we vote with our eyeballs. And the trend continues.

Having said all that, it’s clear to me that the trend abates for at least four years when this president leaves office. It’s impossible to imagine Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or John Kasich exhibiting this kind of cool, or even understanding, of popular culture. The Republican candidates come from an authoritarian strain of conservatism that would do its best to shut down much of this popular culture if it could (and which, thankfully, it can’t). The Democrats mean well but are just too old (although Hillary’s mastery of the art of Twitter-trolling her opponents gives me some hope).

So to the original question, I’d say yes. It’s unusual for an individual to have both the level of dignity and the level of cultural accessibility that this president exhibits. His youth is part of it, but not all (think Ted Cruz and you’ll see what I mean). His blackness is certainly part of it, but not all. He’s an exceptional guy, who has come to the presidency at an explosive and exceptional time in American popular culture, and who appreciates that culture both personally and professionally. There has never been a president like him, and it will be awhile until we see his like again.

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