Aborting the Rebirth of Slick: Obama and the GOP's War on CoolS

This weekend, Karl Rove's mom-and-pop PAC, American Crossroads, took a couple shiny quarters out of its $100 million billfold and gave the world "Obama Cool," a political attack ad that accuses Barack Obama of being cool.

This doesn't work on me, because I like cool shit. (I tried to think of an ad that would work less, and this is what I came up with: "BARACK OBAMA IS A RADICAL... dude. He is both the first president to dunk and the first president to Ollie. Barack Obama has a bunch of bracelets showing stuff girls were willing to do with him on the bus. Barack Obama got you two things in high school: a fake ID and laid. If you vote for him, Beer O'Clock will be abolished in America.") Instead, I did what I normally do when I see some counterintuitive GOP take on Obama: I assume it's probably racist or at least is designed so it can be mistaken as such.

Because taking this ad at face value just doesn't work. For one thing, if you are the sort of person who thinks that Obama is cool, you probably want to vote for him. Hearing the GOP accuse him of being cool, as if it's some sort of fundamental flaw, only reinforces your vote by adding an extra motivation of spite. If you're the sort of person who has been unmoved about the president's cool/uncoolness, then an ad this proudly pastel-fonted and shallow isn't going to decide the issue.

And if you're someone already incensed by the president's pretensions to "cool," well then what the fuck is UP, committed Republican voter? Let's fist-bump terrorist-wise. Booooosh! Bee tee dubs, I'm swinging a Bible taped to the butt of a rifle to try to hack away the dead brush in the woods behind my backyard because I heard that a gun and the Bible carved a nation out of the wilderness. Hi, haters.

Anyhow, the ad ends with a lot of factoids obviously aimed at a youth audience, trying to slice off a part of Obama's 2008 demographic for Romney. Here they are, in order of appearance:

"1 in 2 recent college grads are jobless or underemployed."
"85% moving back in with their parents."
"Student loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars."
"After 4 years of a celebrity president, is your life any better."

You can have fun with these questions. If GOP rhetoric is to be believed, your life only improves when you do power squats with your bootstraps, regardless of the president's celebrity. And moving back in with mom?—households with three generations under one roof are, like, Bible levels of historically normal. That's enough family values to power a TGIF sitcom made out of the homiletic endings of other TGIF sitcoms.

But underemployment also began going through the roof in the second quarter of 2008—something for which Obama bears no responsibility—and anyone hanging around graduate students in the Bush years and during that 2008-9 underemployment boom likely has ample stories about that explosion in student loan debt. Aside from decades of rapidly rising tuitions as colleges realized that the government and private lenders would make up any difference and provide regular profit, that underemployment provoked a common refrain: "Fuck this job market, I'm gonna go get a joint Masters/Ph.D and see how things are in five years."

And thus a quarter million in loan debt is born.

Lastly, not one of those questions confronts the realities of an obstructionist congress or the fact that conservatives' fever for austerity measures disproportionately hamstrings young workers. The ad engages actual issues in a way that's lazy even for marketing standards. "Obama Cool" might as well end with four-of-five dentists choosing "Not Awesome."

That last term seems to be the crux of what the ad offers. It implies that Cool is antithetical to Capable, as if there is some sort of socio-governmental zero-sum game of things either being fun or satisfactory. Reality doesn't work that way. Rove and the GOP's pitch about Obama's coolness offers little more than some kind of bozo economics Guns/Butter curve (I have provided one below) ginned up by the sorts of people afraid of Obama for the same reason that they were afraid Kevin Bacon would poison the hips of kids in town with dancing: as groin-oriented revolutions go up, revenues go down.

Aborting the Rebirth of Slick: Obama and the GOP's War on Cool

Such a conclusion felt a little presumptuous of me, so it seemed prudent to seek the right-wing commentary on the video. Farting out of the gate was no less an eminence than Bernard Goldberg, who once incorrectly wrote a book called The 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America by not printing "people who speak favorably of Bernard Goldberg within earshot of children or strangers" 100 times. Eric Alterman dedicated pages of What Liberal Media? to ripping apart Bernie's seminally moronic book Bias, which was just a buffet of warmed-over "the lie-berals control everything!" accusations scattered over at least a hundred pages of score-settling with Dan Rather that came off as less dignified than Homer Simpson typing "screw Flanders" repeatedly until he met a word count.

Bernie delivered, just hours after the ad hit the internet. His opening paragraph talks about how his liberal friends refer to Obama as "the messiah." One assumes this is the case because Bernie's liberal friends rightly stopped speaking to him three years ago, around the same time that "Obamessiah!" passed from a stupid novelty conservative talking point to a stupid and old novelty conservative talking point. It definitely stopped being even remotely relevant when over 65,000 Obama supporters took out a full-page New York Times ad just eight months into his term challenging him about his abandonment of the public option.

Bernie goes on to highlight the false dichotomy between coolness and competence:

Here's something else to think about: What if the voters this time around think that what's really cool is … competence. That could spell trouble for our cool president. Because you know what's really not cool? Incompetence.

Ordinarily it takes an antagonist to illustrate a false dichotomy, but Bernard Goldberg takes personal initiative to a new level, exploding the "coolness vs. competence" premise by embodying neither.

So if it doesn't engage the facts and can't hope to persuade anyone either sold or unsold on the years-long debate about Obama's pop-cultural presence, it's tough not to ask whether the ad is yet another fusillade from the Karl Rove race artillery. Barack Obama is cool, and black people are cool. They invented the blues and rock and roll, and then they invented hip-hop, and now we've gone from Elvis Presley swaggering to white college girls booty dancing on Youtube.

Not only does the ad lead with neon pastel (and dated) club-color fonts, not only does it have Jimmy Fallon saying "Preezy" for "President," not only does it have Obama singing a 1970s soul classic from Al Green, but it's punctuated repeatedly with a deep "Oh yeeeaaahhh," that sounds like a cross between Barry White and that Yello song from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Anyone can get pumped for cool stuff, so why the big ol' black voice?

In fact, what seems most notable about the video is what's not there. Consider: if you want to knock on "cool" presidents, why not run a clip of Bill Clinton in shades, playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show? Clinton was a bad guy, right? Ended in disgrace and everything? Had some cool times in the oval office with the honeys?

And all his economic success was because Bush I raised taxes and stabilized the economy, while all of Bush II's economic woes came from inheriting Clinton's bubble economy, right? Those have all been the boilerplate explanations for 10 to 16 years or so. Why not brutally reemphasize the point about coolness by showing the last Democratic president whose coolness voters were willing to buy into?

Unless showing the white guy only ruins the overall effect.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?