The Obama Box

Column: What Obama’s TV picks really tell us about him

Frank Underwood Carrie Mathison Phil Dunphy House of Cards Homeland Modern Family
January 3, 2014

Imagine my surprise this week when my daily paper suddenly turned into a copy of US Weekly. With a turn of the page the New York Times became the sort of celebrity magazine that dispenses trivia in order to prove that a rich, famous, and powerful person is, at heart, just like us. The luminary was Barack Obama, whose taste in television was mined by correspondent Michael D. Shear for insights into the presidential character. Shear failed to provide any, but his article was riveting nonetheless. What at first glance might be dismissed as a piece of journalistic fluff, a beat-sweetener written for the slow news days between Christmas and New Year’s, is on close examination an exercise in social positioning, an assertion of class allegiance on the part of the president and the paper.

You remember Shear. He is the same reporter who, in an interview last summer, interrupted the president to say that he, too, was aware of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam’s existence. In "Obama’s TV Picks—Anything Edgy, With Hints of Reality," Shear reports that the president, whose "life in the Oval Office" is marked by "war, terrorism, economic struggle," and "mass shootings" has a taste, "in his few quiet moments," not for situation comedy but for drama. He indulges this taste by watching copious amounts of television.

Obama, we learn, "seeks not to escape to the delicious back-stabbing of the ‘Real Housewives," nor to "the frivolity of the singing teens on ‘Glee,’" but to "shows like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire,’" as well as to "the DVD box set of AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad,’" "Mad Men," "Homeland," "The Wire," "Modern Family," "Parks and Recreation," and "Sportscenter." "Friends say Obama is also awaiting the new season of the Netflix show ‘House of Cards.’" The president has the same attitude toward spoilers that he has toward leaks. He is against them. They might interfere with his viewing. "The president is way behind" on "Breaking Bad," Shear writes, "and frequently reminds those around him not to give anything away."

The problems with Shear’s exercise in psychoanalysis quickly become apparent. He makes distinctions where none ought to exist. The antics on "Modern Family" and "Parks and Recreation" are just as frivolous as "the singing teens on ‘Glee.’" "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," and "House of Cards" are filled with as much "delicious back-stabbing" as any episode of "Real Housewives." The dramas the president favors are soap operas with sophisticated vocabularies. Left unmentioned is the difference between the shows Shears poo-poos and the shows Obama watches. It is the same difference between a juicer bought at Wal-Mart and one bought at Williams-Sonoma: the latter is a luxury good. It takes cash to afford the cable connections, premium channels, and Netflix subscriptions required to watch all of the titles on the president’s viewing list. It is also necessary to have leisure time, which, disturbingly, the president seems to have a lot of. No wonder he finds out about everything from the newspapers.

Shear clearly had a thesis in mind when he sat down to write. His article is an argument in search of evidence. He seems to think Obama’s taste in television reveals a tragic sense of life, a Niebuhrian realism that informs the administration’s domestic and international agenda. Shows that undermine this idea, such as sports and comedies, are downplayed. Dramas with antiheroes, violence, conspiracies, and sex are emphasized.

"It may be ‘Homeland’ that offers the most interesting insight into Obama’s downtime preferences," Shear says. "Homeland" is a Showtime series about an insane CIA agent pursuing an Islamic sleeper cell. The show is just as violent and ridiculous as "24," but lacks the "let’s roll" ethos that imbued the background of the earlier series. For Shear, however, this increasingly absurd program stands for much more. "‘Homeland,’" he writes in a wonderful example of cliché, "reveals the hidden dangers in a complicated world." It is also "subtle, presenting choices that are rarely easy and never cost-free." Complicated, subtle, rarely easy, never cost free—do these adjectives call to mind the reputation of a certain head of state? "It is not unlike the phrase Obama often uses with his advisers: ‘Hard things are hard.’" And dumb things are dumb.

I know plenty of conservatives whose favorite shows are the same as the president’s. Their enjoyment of a piece of entertainment has little to do with its politics—probably because so few entertainments and entertainers share their politics. It is therefore fantastic to suggest, as Shear does, that the images and sounds emanating from our televisions are connected to, indeed give birth to, the policy agendas we read about in his paper. He has David Simon, the creator of "The Wire," make a cameo appearance in a paragraph implying that an HBO series from years ago may have shaken President Obama out of complacency on the issue of income inequality. The thought insults not only our intelligence but also Obama’s. That Obama has called "The Wire" "one of the greatest shows of our time" means nothing more than that he agrees with a commonplace opinion. And if that commonplace opinion is the cause of the president’s half-hearted campaign to increase the minimum wage, well, we are in direr straights than I had thought.

Shear is aware of how silly he sounds. "It may be a fool’s errand," he writes, "to psychoanalyze anyone—let alone a sitting president—based only on the books he reads or the music he listens to, or the television shows he watches." That has not stopped the Times from engaging in such a fool’s errand twice in one month. Earlier in December, Shear’s colleague Peter Baker wrote a piece that said Obama’s taste in books reflected his "journey" from Punahou to the White House. Yet the titles Baker mentioned were not unique to the president. They were trendy literary fiction, books discussed in the Times Book Review, books carrying blurbs from Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Safran Foer. How much do such books, about Chechen immigrants or New York cricket players, reveal of the character of their readers, other than the fact that those readers are the sort of people who know the author of the moment, the books on the prize lists, the aggrieved minority or former British colony that happens to be in fashion?

One’s favorite movies, television, books, and music may not provide deep insights into one’s psychology or politics or point of view, but they do specify the consumer profile under which one falls. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Netflix’s Reed Hastings (with whom Obama made small talk at a recent White House function) both know well that buying a particular book, or watching a particular movie, reveals data about a user that can be used to predict the user’s habits and tastes. About the president’s habits and tastes there can be no question: They are utterly typical of the American educated class.

"Homeland," "Game of Thrones," "House of Cards"—these are the latest distractions of the well-schooled echelon of society that toils in high positions in finance, academia, media, and the bureaucracy, that binge-watches fashionable shows with determination and marathon-runner stamina, that discusses over dinner recent articles in the New York Times Magazine or the New Yorker, that laments rising inequality during vacations in tropical locales. To watch such programs is not a sign of critical acumen but of social status. The audience of these cable dramas is wealthy not only in dollars but also in cultural currency: in the ability to detect and adapt to the rise and fall of reputations, to restate the latest critical judgments, to fashion one’s subjective tastes into a coherent and ideological whole. That Barack Obama watches the same television shows as a reader of the New York Times must add an extra thrill, a dash of self-importance, to the experience of being a couch potato. Obama is so much cooler than Republican presidents, after all.

The partisan distinction is drawn when Shear writes, "Ronald Reagan, a former actor, once offered to appear on his favorite show, the sitcom ‘Family Ties.’" Here Reagan is condescended to twice in one sentence: first by the parenthetical reduction of the fortieth president to "a former actor," and again by associating him with the less than cerebral, less than edgy "Family Ties." The climax of this display of disdain comes in the next sentence: "(His offer was rejected)." What a loser! George W. Bush did not play the drama game: He "was said to not be a particular fan of television, but made exceptions for A&E’s ‘Biography’ and sports programs." How boring. Who can picture Bush watching "the kind of heavy, darkly rendered television that echoes the sadness and strife that make up so much of his workday"? It’s not like he had more important things to do.

The ideal readers of Shear’s article are opponents of the president inclined to conspiracy theories, partisans who ascribe base motives to Obama’s agenda and activities. Anyone who can make it through the piece should conclude that the president is neither a Communist nor a Muslim but a conventional and rather unexciting Bobo, a middle-aged parent of two who unwinds, in between golf and games of pickup basketball, in the accustomed manner of his caste. Ironic, isn’t it: A man whose senses of ego and ambition are continually inflated by his rivals, his supporters, and himself is just another member of a comfortable and confused elite, enjoying television on his large, high-definition set, watching movies in his private screening room, and eating fine cuisine in the most fashionable restaurants while brooding over the prospect of American decline. One reads "Obama’s TV Picks" not for the information it contains or for the conclusions it draws, but for the opportunity to be reassured that, no matter how incompetent he may seem, no matter how far his approval ratings may fall, Barack Obama is, in the end, just like us.

Published under: Barack Obama