Obama becomes presidential tastemaker

He’s left the White House behind, but former President Obama isn’t done leaving a mark on popular culture.

Whether he’s sharing his interest in Lizzo and Lil Nas X with the release of his music playlists or telling readers they “can’t go wrong” with Toni Morrison novels as part of his summer reading recs, the ex-commander in chief isn’t surrendering his role as a big-time tastemaker.

“He’s certainly comfortable with the role of influencer I think in a way that no previous president has been,” says Jeremy Wallach, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.

Most ex-presidents write books, give speeches and focus on their libraries after they end their political careers.

Obama, who was mocked as a celebrity by Republicans during his 2008 campaign, has entered the entertainment business with a Netflix deal to produce unscripted and scripted series, documentaries and features for the media giant through the Higher Ground production company. 

Obama has a book in the works, too. He and Michelle Obama reportedly inked a $60 million deal that covers a presidential memoir expected to hit shelves next year. He’ll be challenged to sell more copies than his wife’s “Becoming,” a memoir that left its own mark on popular culture.

The Obamas’ interests in culture include books but go well beyond them.

Last month, the 44th president posted his annual summer reading and music lists to much fanfare, including songs such as “MOOD 4 EVA” by heavyweights Beyonce, Jay-Z and Childish Gambino, alongside classic performers Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. 

CNN described the 58-year-old’s summer playlist as “a pretty cool place to be” for a music artist.

Days later, Obama received nearly 750,000 likes on his Instagram post offering summer reading recommendations “in case you’re looking for some suggestions.” Among Obama’s list were well-known works by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Morrison alongside a widely anticipated book, “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead, and Lauren Wilkinson’s 2019 thriller “American Spy.”

The Obama seal of approval has given a big boost to recipients in the past.

When Richard Price’s “Lush Life” appeared on Obama’s summer reading list in 2009, sales of the novel doubled, according to its publisher.

And after the then-president was spotted in 2010 carrying a copy of “dom” by Jonathan Franzen while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, the book’s publisher said the attention was immediate.

“People I didn’t know I knew were asking for free copies, people in the more political areas,” Jeff Seroy, the senior vice president of marketing and publicity at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, told The New York Times at the time. “Obama’s reading it reached out beyond people who don’t ordinarily pay attention to literary fiction per se.”

Wallach says having a former president weigh in on everything from Ella Mai’s 2018 tune “Boo’d Up” to the latest literary hit isn’t “typical.”

“But he’s always been a cool president,” Wallach says. “He has always had a very close relationship with popular culture.”

“He’s not a hipster,” he adds. “He goes for things that are not generally embarrassing. He doesn’t say how much he likes Nickelback. He likes Beyonce, he likes Ludacris.”

“He doesn’t really bring a lot of attention to neglected items in our culture. You expect the guy’s tastes to be mainstream. He doesn’t have time to go down obscure rabbit holes,” Wallach says.

Higher Ground has announced a partnership with Spotify to produce exclusive podcasts, suggesting the Obamas’ work in entertainment won’t stop with Netflix.

Staying in the pop culture mix is good politics and business for Obama, who is influencing younger generations and older ones, says Tevi Troy, a presidential historian whose latest book, “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House, from Truman to Trump,” is poised to be released in February.  

“You want to maintain your relevance,” said Troy, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush.

While Obama can’t serve as president again, as a political figure, “an important part of the Democratic constituency is the young voter, the millennial voter.”

Being part of the cultural conversation also widens one’s fanbase.

“The bigger your audience is, the more lucrative your post-presidential career can potentially be,” says Troy.

In an era dominated by President Trump, a former reality TV star, critics might argue Obama doesn’t have the same clout he once enjoyed. But as the years go on and Obama is further removed from his time in office, Wallach says he expects the former president to still hold a finger on the cultural pulse of the country.

“I’m sure there’s an element of calculation,” Wallach says of Obama’s penchant for sharing his cultural tastes. “I think the reason why he’s been so successful is he doesn’t have to do much massaging of his image. I don’t think he worries too much about image consulting and the like, and he’s pretty comfortable with what he actually has enthusiasm for.”

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