Is Barack Obama Still America's Cool Uncle?

America's cool uncle will play some hoops with you now.In less than a month, thank god, Election Day will be here and then gone. There are more debates, and more October Surprises, and many more tens of millions of dollars to be spent on horrifying television commercials, and then we can finally go back to “fantasy football” or whatever people do with their time.

Despite being too conservative and too much of a warmonger for many liberals’ taste, Barack Obama will most likely win a second term because who else are we going to vote for, that nice lady who shares our views exactly, on that Facebook poll? As far as presidents go, with their whole Commander in Chief and “license to kill” routine, Obama is not terrible.

The more important question, for the Internet, is whether or not Barack Obama is still “America’s Cool Uncle”—the guy who listens to old-school soul and sneaks Marlboros on the White House roof and gets Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder to play parties in the Executive Lounge and has a super-hot wife. Is Obama still this guy, or did he sell out so much that now he’s America’s Jerk Uncle Who Nobody Even Wants To Invite Over For Thanksgiving?

My comrade Alex Pareene distilled Obama’s personality down to America’s Cool Uncle back in 2008, when the idea of an even vaguely cool president was too nutty for certain people to process. “Respect knuckles” didn’t make Obama a terrorist, much as Fox News anchors loved the idea that scary black people had habits too alien for Mainstream America. White singers in giant cowboy hats routinely gave each other “terrorist fist jabs” on the CMA Awards, and they weren’t sending suicide bombers to our nation’s white neighborhoods.


Still, having a couple of million-selling hip hop tracks on his iPod didn’t make Obama much different than the with-it mid-40s guys who loosen their ties and put in their earbuds as soon as they’re released from the Wall Street highrises for the day. And much like the entire generation of college-educated 1980s kids, Barry partied and had a hard time deciding between a life of conventional success and more noble pursuits. He typed “business intelligence” for a New York firm and romanticized the broken city when it wasn’t grossing him out. Then off to the Chicago housing projects, where he tried to be a do-gooder and got so frustrated that he took the “easy out” available only to the very clever and very wealthy: Harvard Law School.

It’s not like Barack Obama was Keith Richards. He just wasn’t a deeply corrupt and culturally clueless lifelong politician confused by every aspect of the modern world (beyond corruption). Remember that it was controversial to allow President Obama the use of a Blackberry and some occasional glances at the Internet via his secretary’s computer. Presidents weren’t supposed to have any idea about that stuff.

Four years later, even the more forgiving “cool uncle” is questionable. For one thing, cool people don’t use robot death drones to kill entire families celebrating weddings on the other side of the world. (It is only cool to kill super villains with your own pistol and/or hands, like in those James Bond and Jack Ryan movies.) Cool people also don’t constantly give up and let the Republicans have whatever they want. And don’t forget all those pictures of Obama in Costco polo shirts and mom jeans.

Decent people, however, don’t act so differently than Barack Obama. They are kind to their children, good to their spouses, and they mean well even when they fall short. A decent president of the United States also has a heavier moral burden than, say, a blogger. This nation, through its military and corporate tentacles, is responsible for a lot of actual evil in the world that’s excused for the usual reasons of national security, control of resources and plain old profit. Lots of people and movements around the globe have legitimate gripes and will never get a fair chance to challenge U.S. power, while the remaining strongmen and dictators have plenty of reason to sic the disillusioned on symbols of American hegemony. In our age of spectacle, it takes a 9/11 or shooting up a theater dressed as The Joker to get any attention from a busy planet. The least cool part of being president must be deciding if it’s best to drop a bomb on somebody’s suspected lair to prevent a whole lot of other somebodies being killed. And yet, there are cool and clever uncles who spent their careers working on widgets for defense satellites, or creating pills that gave old men boners. “Cool Uncle” is a lower bar than plain cool.

Barack Obama’s first term as president has been an extremely mixed bag. People (like me) who finally fell for his whole thing, including the HOPE posters created by a street artist and not by the actual campaign, were understandably let down when President Obama didn’t arrive at the White House with Jedi mind tricks and a working lightsaber. That’s because the coolest thing about Barack Obama was never actually Barack Obama—it was his story, the story of a kid not unlike so many American kids growing up in the 1970s and 80s, with weird family combinations and missing-in-action dads and bad television and grandparents who picked up the slack and a mom who refused to settle because she couldn’t keep still. In a country with an entrenched elite and disgraceful income disparity, a smart black kid from a broken home actually got an Ivy League education and became president of the United States. It’s the kind of story Republicans love to tell but hate to ever see happen. And it is what makes dorky golfer dad Barack Obama the coolest uncle in American History.

(Plus, Mitt Romney is such a tool, he makes Harry Reid seem like Miles Davis.)

White House photo by Pete Souza.