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On Friday, we talked about how Beyoncé’s participation in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program showed how the Obamas were interested in including a wider (and younger-skewing) swath of culture in official political life. On Saturday, President Obama’s speech to the White House Correspondents’ Association offered even more evidence. It was a shrewd move on Obama’s part; though the event is ostensibly closed, Internet-disseminated videos of its speeches have been a postmortem fixture since Stephen Colbert’s elaborate Bush satire in 2006. These speeches have become a way for presidents to temporarily drop the gravitas they’re required to carry as symbolic heads of state and give the public an idea of their private character. Obama knew that the routine would be seen; moreover, he knew that he’d ordered the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, and in retrospect, you can see the swagger. He used the opportunity not only to utterly destroy Donald Trump, but to signal his cultural allegiances in subtle but powerful ways.
Obama’s Trump zingers, the most-noticed remarks of the night, contained one example: In addition to comparing doubts about Obama’s citizenship to doubts about the moon landing and Roswell, Obama also urged Trump to continue asking, “Where are Biggie and Tupac?” The former are what you might call “retro” conspiracy theories, while the latter is a modern-day example of the paranoid style, in line with not only birthers and truthers but “Courtney killed Kurt” true-believers. Younger audience members know about it, although their parents were probably confused by it. But there was also the Biden-centric parody of The King’s Speech. “Wacky Uncle Joe” is already an Internet meme, and Saturday night’s video used a clip from ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” to emphasize Biden’s rawness. I love my parents, but they are just not going to get why it’s hilarious to think of Joe Biden as ODB.
Though many of the references Obama relied on were deliberately mainstream (The Adjustment Bureau, Celebrity Apprentice, NPR), there were prominent portions that, like the above examples, reached out to the younger generation. Most notably, there was the video played as Obama entered: Rick Derringer’s “I Am a Real American” (which Hulk Hogan made famous as his entrance music), set to a montage of ’80s icons like “The Karate Kid,” the ’84 Tigers winning the World Series, and Optimus Prime, all interspersed with Obama’s birth certificate pulsing in front of a wall of flames. The obvious joke of “Obama is a real American” was clear, but that combination also tickled a part of my brain that my poor father, who took an 8-year-old Mike to a WWF event at the Utica Memorial Auditorium even though it was like a knife to his MFA’s heart, would still be baffled by.
Like the Beyoncé video, all of these references serve to make young people previously disconnected from politics feel like they are part of the national identity. But there’s something else there, too. When a jubilant crowd took to the streets of lower Manhattan after the death of bin Laden was announced last night, a guy on top of a phone booth got the crowd to chant “USA ain’t nothing to fuck with!”, echoing another song you can find the ODB on. The cultural references being bandied about here–rap, wrestling, Ralph Macchio–conjure a kind of triumphant swagger entirely appropriate to the situation but hard to find outside of that generation’s pop-culture experience. Call it narcissism if you want, but it’s all over Beyoncé’s work, too.
My generation is, I think, looking for precisely that feeling from politics, and Obama is important to us irrespective of his policies because he conjures it so effectively. Remember that, as he was giving his speech, Obama knew the raid was being carried out, and he knew he was going to have reason to crow very soon. The speech served as a kind of foreshadowing, with “Real American”–which, let’s not forget, also was played when Hogan won a match–giving the same feeling we might get upon hearing that public enemy number one was now kaput. There’s no way to quantify or even defend our desire to get that experience out of politics. But give it to us, and we’ll follow you anywhere.