After four years under tacky Trump, the Biden administration is bringing celebrity back to D.C. God help us.
US Singer Lady Gaga looks at US Vice-President Kamala Harris as she arrives to sing the US National Anthem during the 59th Presidential Inaguruation on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Of all the collectibles from the Barack Obama years—the Obamaphones, the cluster bomb shards from Yemen—I think my favorite is a New York Magazine piece from 2016. As drama swirled around Hillary Clinton’s emails, as the presidential campaign wore on into the summer, the ace journalists at New York had something else on their minds: President Obama was taking a Martha’s Vineyard vacation! And wasn’t he just such a dad! “If we had to guess,” the magazine intoned, the president at that very moment was doing “a little bit of the Cha-Cha Slide, a heart-to-heart with Malia Obama about how proud he is of her, and not one but two gin-and-tonics.”
Obama got this kind of slobbering press coverage because he was cool. He was so cool that he was even cool when he was doing things that were not cool, like traipsing around a wealthy seaside village with daughters in tow. And it wasn’t just him: his entire administration was cool, a can-do collection of chirpy, latte-toting optimists here to rescue the country after that lame cowboy George W. Bush had steered it into a Texas ditch. So cool was Team Obama that their coolness functioned as a kind of Teflon over a genuine and occasionally frightening dark streak. Even when they were caught weaponizing the IRS and subpoenaing journalists’ phone records, the so-called “scandalabra” of 2013, their coolness never quite diminished. They might have become antiheroes, briefly, but still cool, always cool.
Now, following the inauguration of Obama’s former veep, Joe Biden, one thing is clear: the cool kids are back in town. And if Wednesday was any indication, they’re going to make the next four years deeply insufferable.
That Joe Biden is even considered cool is quite a feat of airbrushing. It’s easy to understand why Kamala Harris is cool, given that she checks most of our present-day coolness boxes: progressive woman of color, never bores anyone with substance, spends most of her time auditioning for GIFs and clapping back at the furniture. But Biden? He’s a 78-year-old white Irish guy from a state people usually forget exists. He likes to ride trains, worked with segregationists in the Senate, and once warned about the creeping menace of Indian accents at Dunkin’ Donuts. Some of Biden’s coolness surely derives from his posse, including his wife, Jill, who, like all cool celebrities, once played a doctor on TV. Biden is also replacing someone whose idea of cool was to have McDonald’s cater a banquet, so the bar is admittedly rather low.
American politics has often been distinctly uncool. Turn back the calendar just to the 1990s, and to be cool was to be a slacker, even a nihilist, to care about nothing larger than yourself while sniggering along to Beavis and Butt-Head. Washington, D.C. was for geezers like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Even Bill Clinton, with his saxophone and his sexual psychoses, couldn’t quite crack through the indolence—the 1996 election, in which Clinton was reelected, saw the smallest voter turnout rate since 1924. Then came the aughts, George W. Bush, that grating Texas twang, years of pointless war. A political consciousness was awakened among the cool kids. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, once a hallmark of ’90s cool, a brilliant if cynical parody of the evening news, evolved into a self-righteous polemic against the Bush administration. Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing even managed to glamorize the civil service, turning some of the most vanilla people on the planet into polymathic hipsters.
It was suddenly cool to care about the government, and when Obama won in 2008, all that hip social awareness hit an idealistic climax. The cool kids were no longer in opposition; anything was possible now that the president knew Beyoncé. Over the next eight years, politics became a kind of self-deprecatingly hip spectator sport, akin to that one friend who likes to watch curling. The economy might have been in the doldrums, the constitutional law professor president might have been poring over the Espionage Act, but wasn’t it just awesome that the real C.J. Cregg gave a White House press briefing? And wasn’t that so much doper than the fake-tanned John Boehner or that amphibian Mitch McConnell? Even one of my precious few favorite Barack Obama moments, when he joked about droning the Jonas brothers—talk about unifying the country!—was itself a function of cool, a reverse-engineered wink to America’s love of celebrity.
Yet all this hip smartness was also largely superficial. Politics was cool only when filtered through presidential quips and easy signifiers, in the same way that science was only cool via the reductive snappiness of Neil deGrasse Tyson. And there was another wrinkle: the entire arrangement was parasitic. Political coolness was dependent on the other, namely an imaginary Greek chorus of slack-jawed yokels, drawling gun owners, and climate change deniers, who were out of the club and not in on the joke. The point wasn’t to be smart per se—it certainly wasn’t to read books, though incidentally have you seen The Handmaid’s Tale?—it was to feel smarter than a conjured-up class of braying right-wing untermenschen. Then came the unthinkable. One of those very dopes won a presidential election. Donald Trump was every heavily edited Fox News clip Jon Stewart had ever destroyed by smirking at. The cool kids had been turned out by a gilded bumpkin with a muskrat for hair who tauntingly blasted “God Bless the USA” at his every rally.
Hence the immense relief when Joe Biden at last corrected this tacky error. The kind of cool he will restore to the White House, it’s worth pointing out, is different from the radical chic of the 1960s, which I chronicled last week as a kind of accidental prequel. Today’s cool kids are calmer, more pragmatic, more digitized; their hero is Steve Kornacki looking life-threateningly dehydrated in front of an electoral map, not Ken Kesey tooling across the country in a whacked-out van. And whereas the ’60s rebels proudly rejected authority and fashion, today’s political hipsters love them some celebrity. Among the stars who turned out for Biden’s big day were Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Tom Hanks, John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Eva Longoria, Demi Lovato, Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi—the list goes on and on. It was a win-win arrangement: the Biden team got to appear glamorous by association while the A-listers got to feel socially conscious sans any kind of meaningful sacrifice whatsoever.
And given that journalists love to partake in the cool too, my point is: get ready. The president’s iTunes playlist is about to become breaking news again. So too the vice president’s yoga routine and model of Fitbit. Jen Psaki’s boring dismissals of Fox News reporters will spawn a thousand YouTube videos, with the actual substance of the questions she was asked edited out. Late-night hosts will fete the second husband like he’s the next Frank Sinatra. Thrills will go up legs, presidential karaoke attempts will be fawned over, various White House staffers will be shipped. Also, thousands of Keystone pipeline workers will be put out of jobs and the troops will remain quagmired in Afghanistan and Iraq. But did you see Kamala slow-jam the news on Fallon last night? I mean…I just…I can’t…it’s like…what a kween!
Yes, the cool kids are back. By 2024, the rest of us are going to wish we could shove them into a locker.