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The GOP’s Fear of a Cool Obama | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

The GOP’s Fear of a Cool Obama


(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Republicans used to exult in fielding candidates that voters would like “to have a beer with.” This year, of course, their candidate doesn’t drink beer—in fact, Mitt Romney’s so socially challenged that his advance team is wary about letting him share cookies with voters. But lately Obama has been raising the ante on social comfort, asking which candidate would you like to share a song or nod to a pulsing beat with, and the GOP clearly considers this to be some kind of dirty trick.

And so in the two days since Obama and Jimmy Fallon “slow-jammed the news” on Fallon’s late-night show (specially taped at the University of North Carolina to underline the Democratic campaign to keep student loan interest rates from doubling), the Republicans have put out two web ads. Each tries to turn Obama’s strength into a weakness, insisting that the “Preezy” is too busy being cool to be presidential:

That was from the RNC, where heads seem stuck in the primaries still—the contrast between Obama’s supposed frivolity and Romney’s seriousness actually comes off as a contrast between O’s grace and Mitt’s forced emoting, but they can’t see that yet. Their ears are still ringing with triumphalisms from the debates about Obama’s “failures.” And here’s how Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC hit Obama just hours later:

Both ads, of course, are a reprise of John McCain’s 2008 “celebrity” ad, which likened Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and suggested that his fans had fallen into some kind of mass delusion. (McCain dropped that line of attack like a hot potato the moment he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.) And both ads, aimed at college students’ swing-voting parents as well as the base, try to obscure the fact that Romney only recently came around to keeping student interest rates at 3.4 percent, under pressure from Obama. What’s more, House Republicans are still grumbling about paying anything more for education.    

Nevertheless, the Republican media apparatus immediately picked up the tune, expressing horrified dismay that anyone in politics would stoop to being popular. “I think it’s nutso,” Fox & Friends’ Gretchen Carlson said of Obama’s appearance on Fallon, adding, “I just personally do not agree with the highest office of the land, the most important figure in the world, going on these comedy shows. I think it lowers the status of the office.”

Ann Coulter told Sean Hannity that it was “pathetic” for Obama to go on Fallon, where the audience, she said, is “only a few hundred thousand.” “Who are these shut-ins watching Jimmy Fallon?” (Apparently, about 2 million people tuned in the night Obama appeared.)

Never mind that Romney was on Leno recently or that during the primaries he read the Top Ten on Letterman (where he said, “What’s up, gangstas? It’s the M-I-Double Tizzle”) and is apparently weighing whether to host Saturday Night Live this fall. Almost every politician has been eager to do these comedy shows ever since Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In in 1968 to say, “Sock it to me?” There’s no good-faith argument here—per usual, the right is merely criticizing Obama for whatever he does, even when they do it themselves.

But as you watch the two ads above, it becomes clear that it’s not only Obama acting like a celebrity that has the GOP’s nose out of joint. He’s also “acting black”--in fact, he’s rubbing their faces in it, just like he did when he sympathized with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for getting arrested in his own home. And that gleams like troll gold to Republican strategists.

Obama has dared to be a cool black man more often lately. First, in January, he sang, “I—I’m so in love with you” at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater, with Al Green in the audience, a totally engaging moment the Rove ad doesn’t fail to sneer at. (As Maureen Dowd wrote, “For eight seconds, we saw the president we had craved for three years: cool, joyous, funny, connected.”) Then, for a Black History Month celebration in the White House, Obama sang a few bars of “Sweet Home Chicago” with B.B. King, once again looking terrifically comfortable in his own (black) skin.

By March, the right was criticizing Obama for acknowledging, of Trayvon Martin, that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Newt Gingrich called that comment “disgraceful.”

At some level, much of the GOP base still believes that Obama’s race is somehow disqualifying for the Oval Office, and they can barely keep themselves from overtly attacking him for it. But the demographics are daunting, and their professionals know it. To see a white guy like Jimmy Fallon acting black—doing a silly Barry White impression with Obama and Roots vocalist Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter behind him—reinforces the fear among some on the right that the hip youth culture is increasingly a black culture and that it’s inexorably taking over. Obama, half-black/half-white himself, is at the center of this race jam, which is as “impure” as topical comedy itself--a mélange of news and clips of political speech marbled with rap, R&B, tech-talk and global kid culture. (Let’s hope we see more of that Saturday night when Jimmy Kimmel hosts the White House Correspondents Dinner.)

It's all that mixing that sparks miscegenation imaginations, creating GOP fears about cool whites leaving them behind in electoral limbo, forever.

Or, as Stephen Colbert called Obama’s slow jam of the news, a “pathetically successful ploy to be appealing.”

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