There he was, the tall, increasingly gray-haired President Obama, posing with the diminutive 16-year-old gymnast McKayla Maroney. Together, they mimicked the impudent “not impressed” facial expression Maroney made famous after winning only a silver in the vault, the event that was supposed to be her crowning moment at the London Olympics last summer. Together they pursed their lips and twisted them to the side in the universal sign for “is this really it?” The Obama-Maroney photo, taken in the Oval Office as she and fellow American gymnasts visited the White House last week, back-flipped its way through social media over the weekend.
My first thought was that Obama was finally showing us how he really felt during his first debate with Mitt Romney.
My second was that the photo captured a major factor that has separated Obama from his presidential rivals: cultural sensibilities are very much of and in the moment, while he’s faced opponents who have felt very much like the past.
Friends who follow politics only casually all offered this reaction to the picture: it’s nice to have a president with a sense of humor. Call it being relatable, call it being in touch. But however we describe that hard-to-define but know-it-when-you-see-it "cool factor," it's a real reason why Obama won 60 percent of the 18-29 year old vote.
That might not be one of the top five reasons why it’s Obama in the Oval Office and not Romney or John McCain – but it’s up there. We don’t choose our presidents based on who has the best playlist on their iPhones, but we certainly want someone who can break free of the presidential bubble and seem real. Obama, who plays hoops and listens to Jay-Z and now playfully poses with a cultural phenom, dominated that measure against McCain and Romney and before them Hillary Clinton.
The result? Obama has owned the Colbert vote.
Can you see McCain trying the same pose with Maroney? How about Romney, who is only 65 but seems like he just emerged from a 1950's time capsule? (Yeah, he campaigned with Kid Rock, but can anyone picture Romney driving one of his Cadillacs, windows down, belting out “Bawitdaba”? If so, I’d love to see that YouTube video).
In his 2008 primary run, facing criticism from Clinton, Obama mimed the “dirt off your shoulder” brush off Jay-Z popularized, sparking a YouTube hit. Clinton has many skills, but making spontaneous rap references probably isn’t among them. (Her husband, meanwhile, gave us another pop-political landmark in ‘92 when he played the sax with Arsenio, grabbing a decided edge in cultural cachet).
It seems, though, that Republicans are setting a different course for 2016. Paul Ryan, 42, can talk up his work outs and Rage Against the Machine playlist. Chris Christie has a genuine, open-hearted love of Springsteen that reveals a grown man who has held onto something important from his youth, and the kind of fandom most of us can relate to. Over the weekend Christie was on Saturday Night Live, playing his Jersey guy persona for self-deprecating laughs. It will only help him.
“After you take oath of office, you're presidential. But while you're campaigning for that office, and especially when you’re campaigning for Millenials, you have to be cool,” wrote Newsworks columnist Dick Polman. “Christie this weekend was cool. And with those voters in mind, the SNL gig might have been his opening salvo for 2016.”
If so, Democrats better have a plan to open up their ranks. Right now Clinton is the name that tops pundits’ list of 2016 hopefuls. Joe Biden is considered another possibility. Is it possible to come up with two Democratic names more tied to the past?
Republicans have a new generation preparing to fight to be the candidate of the now, an ephemeral, intangible and fickle title that can change hands in a cultural moment.