Feel free to try this at home, but I guarantee you won't get anything out of it except a migraine. Imagine you've been a bit prematurely asked to fill a time capsule with telltale cultural artifacts of the Age of Obama—the evocative movies, TV shows, hit tunes, and other creative whatnots that will someday exemplify the ineffable atmosphere of our 44th president's first term.
Realizing nobody has called these times "The Age of Obama" since early 2009 should be your first clue that this is no easy job. Try to persevere, though. Um—J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot, maybe? Obama's partisans and detractors alike do dig comparing him to Mr. Spock. TV's Glee and Modern Family? Hey, how about post–everything pop diva Lady Gaga? That's the best I can do off the top of my head, and they're all a bit of a stretch.
The multiculti on steroids—OK, asteroids—of James Cameron's Avatar may be less of one. Yet the movie's conception predated not only Obama's presidency but George W. Bush's. Anyway, despite its billion-dollar box-office tally, Avatar's own cultural resonance turned out to have the lifespan of a daffodil.
To politicos, I know, this lacuna has as much significance as assessing the Obama presidency's so far negligible impact (correct me if I'm wrong, NBA fans) on rotisserie basketball. Much happier imagining it's in blissful Brigadoon rather than nasty Weimar at the multiplex, the American pop audience purely hates the idea of any connection between its tastes and current events. Trust me, any movie critic who wants to generate a bunch of abuse has only to write a piece suggesting a link exists.
So call it sheer masochism that the interplay between pop-culture gestalts and political trends has been my bread-and-butter topic for years, above all as a barometer of a presidency's success in capturing the public's imagination. For Obama, of all people, to generate so few reverberations in popland—pro or con—is a failed stimulus package if I ever saw one.
Remember, all he had to do to be transformative was get himself elected. Not only our first African American president, he's our first post-boomer one and our first real 21st-century one. Provoking, needless to say, a flood of optimistic, now wistful fantasies on the left and an unabating orgy of unhinged but potent paranoia on the right.
That's just why the dog that isn't barking interests me. Going by the silence, popland's verdict is that Obama's advent, struggles in office, and so forth are all kind of dull. Wouldn't you have at least expected the time was right to remake The Man Who Fell to Earth or The Brother From Another Planet?
In case your default reaction is "So what?", let me point out that any era-defining presidency has a cultural dimension by definition. They affect unrelated areas from haberdashery to cuisine. Consider how John F. Kennedy's administration, besides making it unsafe for American men to wear hats for the next 40 years, both helped set and was fueled by the frisky cultural tone of the early 1960s. Symbolic and/or symbiotic correlatives were everywhere, from James Bond movies to The Dick Van Dyke Show's substitute Jack and Jackie.
Unless Franklin Roosevelt’s counts, Ronald Reagan's presidency had no peers in its dominance of culture as well as politics. If anything, the return of guilt-free privilege that gave us yuppies—and hence, to beneficial effect so far as our national palate went, foodies, because even a stopped wok is right twice a day—was subtlety's contribution to the mix.
Back to the Future summed up Reaganism's heartland appeal as paradoxically transformable nostalgia. Top Gun's cockiness did the same for morning-in-America triumphalism. The Indiana Jones movies split the difference, and do I even need to bring up Rambo? Of the two signature TV dramas of the early '80s, Magnum, P.I., reaffirmed Vietnam as a righteous cause. Meanwhile, Hill Street Blues, its ostensibly "liberal" counterpart—yeah, right—lionized Sisyphean cops taking up the white man's tight-lipped burden here at home.
Affirmations aren't the whole story. The test of a culturally consequential presidency is how vital the White House's occupant is to shaping our collective dreams, including negatively. Along with the right-wing revanchism of Dirty Harry and Walking Tall—and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," too—the Nixon years positively seethed with cultural analogues rooted in liberal antipathy. No doubt to creator Norman Lear's chagrin, TV's All in the Family split the difference once blue-collar audiences embraced bigoted Archie Bunker as their tell-it-like-it-is mouthpiece. The point is that popland couldn't ignore Tricky Dick, any more than it could ignore Bill Clinton 20 years later.
The Clinton era was unique in spawning revealing fantasies about fictional chief executives. Starring Bill as we dreamed he might be if only he weren't, well, Bill, the pro-Clinton The West Wing faced off against the dither-allergic, everything-Bill-wasn't cowboy presidents of Air Force One and Independence Day. Both those huge hits prefigured Bush 43 right down to the latter's sci-fi anticipation of 9/11. As for W. himself, his popland monument is The Dark Knight, which essentially has Batman act out the rationale for Bush's dark but—in the movie's view—necessary presidency.
I doubt it'll cost David Axelrod a nanosecond's sleep, because sideshows aren't his specialty. But the precedents for presidencies as disconnected from popland as Obama's seems to be aren't inspiring. That Jimmy Carter managed to preside over the era of disco, punk, Star Wars, and Me Decade hot-tub licentiousness without having a discernible connection to any of them even as a counterweight somehow confirms his ineffectuality. Whatever else he was, Reagan was obviously better at both harnessing and reshaping collective dreams.
As for Carter's fellow feckless one-termer, George H.W. Bush, Twin Peaks is my favorite example of how little truck America's id—on good terms with its superego throughout Reagan's reign, FYI—had with Poppy's idea of the nation's business. When Bush unwisely tangled with The Simpsons and Dan Quayle denounced Murphy Brown's lax morals, both 41 and his Veep were unquestionably the underdogs in terms of popular allegiance, and so much for the bully pulpit. Whatever else he was, Clinton—our first president to frequent McDonald's in search of something other than votes—was obviously more fun, something Obama hasn't often been accused of lately.
The only reason you can't say Obama has already conceded the popland primary is that his potential 2012 rivals aren't in it yet. It's hard to picture Mitt Romney connecting with anything inflammatory in our subconscious, though you never know; The Dark Knight Rises comes out in July, and let's not forget that Bruce Wayne is a two-faced millionaire with magic undergarments. As for the other GOP contestants, they're already cartoons—the Pillsbury Doughboy with a will to power, libertarianism's answer to Rip van Winkle, Jerry Seinfeld's long-lost zealot twin, etc., etc. That may make cultural embroidery redundant.
Even so, between now and November, I'm going to be keeping tabs on which movies are surprise hits and which TV shows strike a nerve with the public, not just following the polls and the economy's numbers. Maybe Warren Beatty's Reds won the Best Picture Oscar the year of Reagan's inaugural, but the biggest hit of the summer before the Gipper got elected was The Empire Strikes Back. Want to guess which one I think was more politically eloquent, not to mention predictive?