Last week President Obama released a Buzzfeed video called “Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About” to tell people that February 15th deadline for enrolling for health care. I saw the link on my Facebook wall on Thursday and, in an unusual moment of being on top of the social media curve, I witnessed more and more of my friends copy the link and post comments. I saw the video spread slowly across the web, accompanied by “lols”, enthusiastic conservative complaints, and critiques. Every time I checked my phone that day I saw reproductions of the same video I had seen in its baby stages of popularity. There’s something eerie about watching social media in action: thousands of anonymous clicks spreading one piece of information that appeals to so many people. Maybe everyone clicks for a slightly different reason, but what struck me is that those unknown threads of connection were woven together by one video that spoke to some dimension of our nebulous national character.
Obama’s video threaded through America – and then most of Europe – perfectly. The world gained a new appreciation for the date February 15th, if only for a few days. What did Obama do to connect all these people and make a video about the dry, tirelessly discussed subject of healthcare go viral? Well, to put it simply, he didn’t talk about healthcare.
The video consists of parallel shots between Obama and a journalist getting ready for the same interview, doing the exact same things to get ready. They stick out their tongue in the mirror. They practice pronouncing words like “Wednesday” or “February”. Obama puts on sunglasses and uses a finger gun in front of the mirror. Finally, when the journalist shows up to interview Obama, the president is in the midst of mimicking a slam-dunk and unashamedly finishes in front of the interviewer. The video cleverly incorporates the healthcare information – Obama says, “the deadline for signing up for health insurance is” and then repeats the date of the deadline in front of the mirror as a mock practice for the interview—but health care is by no means the focus of the video. The focus is Obama’s humor, his jovial selfies and child-like sketch of Michelle. This humor is what got views, as the president surely intended.
The strongest internet reactions I read as I surfed across the video’s wave of popularity argued that the finger gun joke was an instance of insensitivity towards gun violence or, from the conservative viewpoint, that the tone of the video overall was too humorous in the face of issues like ISIS. However, regardless of those complaints, we have to recognize that there is some part of America now that pushed Obama to make a trivializing video. He made a promotion of health care a complete joke because, in terms of general online popularity, humor takes priority over serious issues. Posting on Buzzfeed accessed a wider base of young voters than giving information to The New York Times. Showing the scenes before his interview spread the word about February 15th better than participating in an actual interview about healthcare.
The video appeals to Americans because it fits into a longer narrative of obsessing over our politicians’ personal lives. Years ago, when Sarah Palin took center stage during her vice presidential campaign, I scoffed at the candidate’s blatant attempts to make herself relatable. Being a soccer mom does not make for good politics (neither does seeing Russia from your house, but that’s a slightly different point). As badly executed as Palin’s personal comments were, I have to admit that Obama’s well-done video fits into the same general category: using warm, fuzzy, personal feelings to encourage Americans to participate in something political.
The move towards humorous advertising is not new. Much of Obama’s health care advertisements directed towards youth have appealed to a joke-driven generation, which is what I find particularly concerning as a member of that demographic. Consider an ad from 2013. Three bros (specifically “Rob, Zach, and Sam, Bros for life” as the bottom of the image reads) do a keg stand. They cheer while holding red solo cups. Sam, wearing American flag shorts, stands underneath the headline, “Got insurance?” Information on the side of the ad reads: “Brosurance. Keg stands are crazy. Not having health insurance is crazier. Don’t tap into your beer money to cover those medical bills, we got it covered.” The ad draws in our modern college student through stereotypical “bro culture”. The administration appealed to partying as a means of relating to young people. The result is a funny ad, but not a meaningful one.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with including personal details in a political campaign until politics devolves into a popularity contest. There’s also no problem with using humor for political appeal until that’s the only kind of communication that holds a student’s attention. Obama’s Buzzfeed movie affirms that both methods are the accepted norm in politics, and that popularity and humor are incredibly effective in an online forum. Sensationalizing the president and reducing him to a caricature or meme is unfortunately a way to successfully push a political agenda.
Still, one moment in the video remained with me longer than the other temporary, humorous scenes that will soon flit away from our collective consciousness. Obama sits at a table with a tall glass of milk and a large chocolate chip cookie. As so many others have done before him, Obama picks up the cookie and tries to dunk it in the glass of milk, only to find that it doesn’t fit.
His reaction: “Thanks, Obama.”
How many times have I said that in that past month? Countless. The dining hall ran out of coffee. Thanks, Obama. I slipped on ice. Thanks, Obama. The spout on my box of Fruity Red Sangria Franzia didn’t close and now I have to clean my floor. Thanks. Obama.
I think I’ve even said that phrase when my own cookie couldn’t fit into my very own glass of milk. Obama saying it himself made me laugh, but it also made me start to reflect on how I used that phrase, how I meme-ified a politician who represents ideals, a party, and countless policies – a person who is much more than a hashtag.
This scene stays with me because it had so much potential for criticism. Here’s moment when Obama could take our silly Buzzfeed platform, our selfies, and our infantile hash-tagged complaints and push back at the American public, reminding us that politics is at work here and that, in this particular case, health is at stake. Instead, the journalist draws a mustache on his SnapChat. Obama doodles his wife. The moment slid away as comments like, “there will never be another president as cool as he is” and, “lol, this made my life” started rolling in.
I don’t blame the president for this choice. The line is hilarious and, most likely, more people registered for health care because of it. I know that Obama’s video is a document that’s designed to disappear—it was released with the pragmatic goal of getting people enrolled in health care, not spreading ideas. Still, with the lost opportunity for a real critique I felt a sense of fatalist complacency from the president about how people today approach issues and political figures. That joking tone without a critical edge makes this video so disappointing.
I remember when college students during Obama’s first election were thoroughly impassioned by the thought of health care reform. People often claimed Obama re-inspired political consciousness in youth. But while watching my president use a selfie stick, I got the sick feeling that my generation had reverted to apathy. Maybe we have come to love humor too much, preferring the simplicity of a hash-tag to political substance.