During his first 100 days as president of the United States, Barack Obama revealed how different he is from all the white men who preceded him in the Oval Office, and the differences run deeper — in substance and style — than the color of his skin.
Barack Hussein Obama is the nation’s first hip president.
This, of course, is subject to debate. But watch him walk. Listen to him talk. See the body language, the expressions, the clothes. He’s got attitude, rhythm, a sense of humor, contemporary tastes.
This much is clear: Whether dealing with the Wall Street mess, shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan or fumbling to fill his Cabinet, Obama leans heavily on personal panache to push political policies. Truth be told, his style is rooted in something elusive and hard to define. Pure and simple, it’s hip.
“Being hip is being able to navigate your environment and others’ environments,” like the way Obama traverses racial boundaries, said John Leland, author of the definitive book “Hip: The History.”
“Obama has this awareness that other presidents haven’t had. He’s white, and he’s black. He’s an elitist, and he’s regular folk. He’s not pinned down to a perspective.”
Young is to hip as old is to fogey — an essential characteristic. Obama has modern instincts and attitudes that appeal to younger people, and more than any other president in recent memory, that makes him a role model. He is green, open, athletic, tech-savvy, healthy. And his hip image certainly isn’t hurt by his wife, who is so obviously cool — setting trends (Sleeveless! Tending her own garden!), confidently mingling with superstars, gracing magazine covers coast to coast.
Consider how, during the campaign, Obama used his personality — the smile, the jaunty stride and the hip-hop verbiage — to disarm critics, charm supporters and persuade fence sitters to elect him president. In an against-the-odds campaign, Obama never lost his poise as he forged a rapport with a new generation of voters while keeping old heads on his team. He could go professorial on the need for health care reform or describe the minutiae of Middle East politics. Still, he begged to bring his BlackBerry into the Oval Office, a signal that he intends to remain in touch with the 21st century. Very hip!
Once he settled into the White House, the hip parade didn’t subside. Early guests included pop artists Stevie Wonder (a campaign supporter), Alicia Keys, Will.i.am and Sheryl Crow — but also Sweet Honey in the Rock, a group of socially and politically active a capella singers with an indie, underground vibe.
Obama strutted onto Jay Leno’s stage and plopped down on the couch, making him the first sitting president to do that. He unveiled his March Madness basketball bracket from the Oval Office. And speaking of basketball, who missed the sight of POTUS dressed in all black, sitting courtside at a Bulls-Wizards game with a cup of beer and high-fiving a trash-talking fan? How hip was that?!
It’s so hip that school kids in Albany, N.Y., coined a term for it: “Baracking.” And it doesn’t stop there. Those in the know at Albany High greet each other by saying: “What’s up, my Obama?” and they respond to a sneeze with “Barack you.” Misbehavior is peer-corrected with the admonition, “Barack’s in the White House,” which translates, “Show some respect.”
Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, said it was “just really stunning” that kids were co-opting the president’s name as a term of endearment and identification.
“This is the most emblematic, positive thing that kids could say,” she said. “It’s connecting them to him, saying that there’s something special in the connection between them.”
John F. Kennedy understood the nexus of Hollywood glam and Washington power, but he wasn’t a hipster. Bill Clinton looked good in Ray-Bans and did a nice turn with the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” but in his heart of hearts, Ol’ Bubba was a country boy from the Ozarks with a need-filled, wonky core — not hip.
Obama’s hipness reinforces that he’s different, yet he’s comfortingly familiar to Americans who want to revere their presidents as pedestal material while demanding that they be approachable as the guy next door.
So what’s hipness got to do with public policy? For Obama, everything.
His personal charisma is a nonverbal form of communication, sending seemingly conflicting messages: the need for radical and sacrificial change, yet the reassurance to Americans that he’s as sane and stable as the guy in the next barber’s chair, said Roger Wilkins, who recently retired as a history professor at George Mason University.
“Hipness is a way of presenting to the world that you know what’s going on and that you’ve got things under control,” said Wilkins, who served in the Johnson administration and has had up-close dealings with every president since Kennedy.
“For Obama, his hipness exudes power. He just keeps on moving, no matter what comes his way, and he doesn’t lose it. That’s being hip — and I don’t see any contemporary public figures whom I would think of as hip.”
True, Obama uses his hipster personality as a weapon. His enormous popularity is a bludgeon that demands political respect, if not support. For example, almost immediately after settling into the White House, Obama left Washington to campaign in Ohio, Michigan and other hard-hit states to sell his economic stimulus plan. It was an effective effort at charm-school diplomacy, garnering outside-the-Beltway support and applying pressure on Washington insiders to get on board the Obama train.
The implication was that if you were not on board, you were not hip — you were square. And who wants to be so uncool as to be on the wrong side of the hip president, other than a few vocal anti-cools, such as radio yakker Rush Limbaugh, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and former Vice President Dick Cheney?
There have been a few other nationally recognized hip politicians: the late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York; former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is currently the state’s attorney general; and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown come to mind. For a brief period in the 1970s and 1980s, one might argue that Washington’s eternal pol Marion Barry was hip; that was before drugs, booze and women brought him low.
To be sure, the track record for hip politicians isn’t promising. History suggests that the power of personality has limitations in politics. It sours under public scrutiny.
So can it last? Can Obama’s hipness survive the weight and responsibility of the office? Maybe there’s a reason presidents aren’t hip. War-making, secrecy, aging, unpopularity, sternness and sobriety — these are decidedly unhip. And all that could come in the next 100 days, because hipness is a trendy thing, subject to popular whim.
For now, with approval ratings over 60 percent, Obama is hip. But he will have to find a balance between being hip and being powerful while sitting in the world’s most watched fishbowl.
“Hipness is what it is! And sometimes hipness is what it ain’t,” goes the famous song by Tower of Power. “There’s one thing you should know. What’s hip today might become passé.”
Sam Fulwood III wrote about race and politics for the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau for more than a decade and is a frequent contributor to The Root.com.