Hillary Clinton is a serious person, a former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. Yet to advance her campaign, she went on Saturday Night Live this weekend, where she dressed as a barkeep, imitated Donald Trump, and mocked her own policy flip flops. Hillary is not the only 2016 candidate to try to humanize herself on a comedy show. Former CEO Carly Fiorina recently paid a visit to comedian Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, where she sang a song she made up for her dog, Snickers: “My name’s Snick, and I’m lazy, please don’t take a walk with me . . .” Her visit and song are indicative of the increasingly frequent use of pop culture platforms to advance presidential aspirations. Besides the two ladies in the race, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz, among others, have each hit one, if not more, of the late night shows. Undeclared potential candidate Joe Biden has as well.
Presidential candidates going on late night shows seeking a “soft interview” is a relatively new phenomenon. When Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton went on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1988 to mock his disastrously long speech to that year’s Democratic Convention, it was extremely unusual for a politician to appear on a late night talk show. And when presidential aspirant Bill Clinton went on Arsenio Hall’s show in 1992, it was even more groundbreaking – especially as he wore sunglasses and soloed on his saxophone.
Even with those milestones in place, it was not until the presidency of Barack Obama that a president actually appeared on a late night talk show as president. Obama has since made it a core vehicle for his outreach. He’s been on The Daily Show seven times, frequented “The View,” made a Saturday Night Live cameo in 2007, and slow jammed the news with Fallon three years ago (long before Jeb Bush got there). Throughout his campaigns and his presidency, Obama has relentlessly used friendly, non-traditional media to reach receptive but disengaged voters. His continued preference for talk shows, podcasts, twitter, and a host of other new media is clearly influencing the presidential campaigns and will likely impact future presidencies as well.
Even with those milestones in place, it was not until the presidency of Barack Obama that a president actually appeared on a late night talk show as president.
Obama’s approach worked, in both of his elections and at key points of his presidency. In the 2008 campaign, 18 percent of voters were young voters, who overwhelmingly backed Obama. Thanks to his use of non-traditional platforms in the 2012 cycle, including the BS (Bill Simmons) Report Podcast, as well as local DJs and non-political talk shows, an even higher 19 percent of the 2012 electorate was young voters, who again heavily backed Obama. As president, Obama endured the comic barbs of Zach Galifianakis on his “Between Two Ferns” show, but the result was a surge in people signing up for the healthcare.gov website Obama had gone on the show to plug.As a candidate, Obama’s use of non-traditional media was an innovative, but strategic, necessity. He was, after all, a non-traditional candidate running against the party’s establishment choice; he needed to use new and different ways to get out and excite voters. Obama and his team also recognized that standard, mainstream media outlets were dwindling in power. Appearing on the CBS Evening News or in a New York Times interview no longer had the reach that they once did.
As Obama moves toward the end of his presidency, the 2016 candidates will have to wrestle with the question of their willingness to be as enterprising in their choices of media as Obama. In fact, Obama’s expansive approach towards new media outlets presents a challenge for 2016 candidates: On the Democratic side, it would be hard for a 67-year-old Clinton (or 73-year-old Bernie Sanders, or a 72-year-old Biden) to pull it off as successfully as Obama did. On the GOP side, appearing on irreverent faux news shows, late night programs, or podcasts might be alienating to the voters they’re trying to get, not to mention the fact that liberal hosts might not want to give Republicans the microphone as often as they give it to Democrats.
The fact that Obama appears young and hip, and he pals around with Hollywood celebrities, still gives him an edge over all of the likely candidates, Republican and Democrat alike. Even so, Obama’s media approach is having an impact on his less cool would-be successors. It is unlikely that Jeb Bush would have slow-jammed the news had not Obama already done so. Hillary staffers actively using twitter are covering ground already broken by Obama’s unprecedented use of twitter, including the recent creation of a White House twitter account. Still, Jeb’s Jimmy Fallon appearance did not create the same excitement as Obama’s appearance did, and Hillary’s 4.3 million plus twitter followers pale behind Obama’s 64 million followers.
Obama’s eventual successor will continue to face this challenge come 2017 as well. The key consideration in developing a media strategy will be balancing the need to reach out to as many voters as possible versus the imperative of maintaining that measure of presidential decorum watched so closely on the international stage. This tension, between being a cool celebrity and an icy, professional executive, has confronted presidents and candidates before. In 1960, the glamorous John F. Kennedy even asked his staff to limit his appearances with the Hollywood celebrities eagerly backing Kennedy’s campaign.
For whoever becomes the next president, it will be difficult at times to look presidential if he or she tries the Obama approach of appearing on all kinds of media, but hard to reach and maintain new voters if they don’t. Obama – because of his youth, his hipness, and his appearance at a time when the mainstream media were breaking down – was uniquely able to play both sides of this divide. It is unclear if his successors, be they Democrat or Republican, will be able to do the same, or even if they should want to.
Tevi Troy is a former White House aide and author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.