A mustachioed Teddy Roosevelt astride his galloping horse. JFK with wind-ruffled hair and Wayfarers. Ronald Reagan in Brylcreem and black tie. When it comes to representing American masculinity, Hollywood's got nothing on the White House. The celebrity-industrial complex does its best to advance certain sorts of manly ideals—think Clint Eastwood and George Clooney—but movie stars, subject as they are to fickle studio marketing budgets, fade in and out of view. Whereas the president dominates the news, and our collective consciousness, every damn day for four or eight years running.
The chief executive's behavior sets the tone for what it is to be a boss, a father, and a husband, as well as a leader—though not always for the better. For every Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan, there's a sweaty control freak (Nixon) or a mealymouthed milquetoast in a cardigan (Carter). Among our recent, younger, theoretically more relatable presidents, Bill Clinton, the feels-your-pain empath (enthusiast of McDonald's and other oral treats), didn't exactly inspire men to greater heights. And George W., the biz-school frat guy, forever mispronouncing big words and flunking big tests, lowered the bar with a self-satisfied smirk.
Then, in 2008, the country voted for change—in an election that was essentially a referendum on guyhood. Obama had a famously thin résumé, so it came down to this: calm, cerebral young black dude or cranky, hotheaded old white guy.
The nation spoke loud and clear, but did we—or at least the 54 percent of the electorate that didn't vote for John McCain—really mean to vote for the Obamafication of the American male? We watch the occupant of the Oval Office more than any other living male, and yet the effect he has on our notions of manhood, our sense of ourselves as American men, largely escapes attention.
In Obama's case, sometimes he lives up to the male ideal and sometimes he doesn't (let's overlook those boxy, too-wide-in-the-shoulder suits and his dorky dad jeans, shall we?). But it might not matter all that much, because in voting for a radically different avatar of American masculinity, we were, in a way, voting for Barack Obama to change us. Which is exactly what he's doing.
For some, it's what's not there that matters. Byron Hurt, a New York–area filmmaker who last fall produced a documentary titled Barack Curtis, sees Obama's ascent as the rejection of "defiant, in-your-face manhood." Hurt's film drew a parallel between George W.'s masculine identity and that of 50 Cent—a.k.a. Curtis Jackson—reminding us that Fitty once admiringly called Dubya "gangsta." ("I wanna meet George Bush," he said. "Just shake his hand and tell him how much of me I see in him.") "Barack Obama doesn't have to front like he's hard," Hurt says. "It's a deeply secure presentation of masculinity."
It's also an entirely different one. Cintra Wilson, author of Caligula for President, an apocalyptic fantasia that takes Dick Cheney's construction of an imperial presidency to its logical conclusion, shudders at the memory of Bush's "whole 'Mission Accomplished' codpiece thing"—the crotchtastic flight suit on the aircraft carrier: "Obama would sooner go out in front of the American people in a dress than in that overcompensating masculine drag."
Obama's drag, rather, is meant to convey the no-nonsense M.O. of a hardworking wonk who's always ready to shed his jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves—a direct rebuke to his predecessor, who ordered a strict Oval Office dress code. Obama may have a less seismic effect on menswear than, say, JFK, who reputedly dealt a death blow to haberdashers by refusing to wear a hat, but you get the sense that the fashion world is intently watching his every move. Donatella Versace, for one, dedicated her spring/summer 2009 men's collection to him. The leader of the free world is, she declared, "a relaxed man who doesn't need to flex muscles to show he has power."
As any good boss knows, exercising a little brawn in the right way is more effective than just throwing your weight around. And Obama does have a certain amount of muscle to flex. During the campaign, the Wall Street Journal quoted a purported Hillary Clinton supporter as saying, "I won't vote for any beanpole guy." But then Obama bared his surprisingly ripped physique on a Hawaii beach and details of his six-day-a-week workout routine made headlines. We never see him pumping iron (though we do get to see him playing hoops). "Obama doesn't like, or affect to like, traditional outdoorsy activities," notes James Joyner, managing editor of the Atlantic Council and founder of the political blog Outside the Beltway. That's in stark contrast to presidents from LBJ to Reagan to Bush II—manly men who liked to make noise about what robust frontiersmen they were at a succession of "Western White House" ranches.
Breaking a sweat out West has always been a way for presidents to flaunt their work ethic. But Obama takes a different tack: Instead of photo ops on the range, he gives us transparency at the office. For a guy who was often accused of being vague and squishy on the campaign trail—all that "Change" and "Yes, we can" stuff—he's made a point of buckling down and owning up to just how shitty things really are (e.g., "stress tests" that some banks actually failed) rather than going into spin mode. He's manned up the process of governing—and of being a boss. He's made remote, inaccessible bosses who hide in corner offices seem like the pussies they are.
Even Obama's playtime has been highly focused—he treats leisure activities as opportunities for release rather than excuses to slack. In February, for instance, during a weekend visit back home, Obama and his friends borrowed a basketball court at the University of Chicago for a couple of hours. The participatory, "inclusive" theme of his work style carries over to his downtime: He's made sure he's a man among men.
And, of course, women. It's worth noting that the pectacular paparazzi beach photos of Obama were shot while he was on a pre-inaugural vacation with Michelle and the kids. "He demonstrates manhood through fatherhood," says Hurt, the filmmaker. We see him eating ice cream, visiting the zoo, and riding bumper cars with Malia and Sasha. When the commander in chief can find time to have mac 'n' cheese with his offspring every night, the message is clear: Whatever work we've brought home can surely wait. Daddy-O has made it cool to put away the macho posturing and admit we're okay with being kiddie-whipped.
Similarly, as Hurt notes, "the fact that he's married to such an empowered woman" makes him seem more virile, not less. The First Bedroom has long appeared to be, let's face it, a sexless place—mercifully so, for those who prefer not to think of old people knocking boots. (Ronald Reagan calling Nancy "Mommy"? Gross!) Barack and Michelle are the first presidential couple since Jack and Jackie you can actually imagine having sex without making yourself queasy.
Remember the embracing crowds on Election Night and Inauguration Day? Both events prompted speculation about an "Obama Baby Boom," with Newsweek noting that 44 was born exactly nine months after JFK's election: "Is it possible Obama was conceived on that historic night?" Whether American men find "hope" an aphrodisiac or not, there's some inspiration we can take from a First Couple who aren't suffering from bed death.
Okay, while Obama may be a stud, he's bad at bowling. Worse, he's bad at joking about how bad he is. "It was like the Special Olympics or something," Obama wisecracked on Leno about his trip down to the White House's basement alley—a misfire that he ended up having to apologize for.
We all learned a lesson from it, though. It proved he's not—and he shouldn't try to be—a fratty quipster. In fact, Obama's usual refusal to allow himself to be baited by fratty quipsters of all persuasions—from Leno to Limbaugh—is what gives him the illusion of floating above it all.
"What Obama does is deflect challenges to his masculinity," says Harry Brod, a humanities professor at the University of Northern Iowa who teaches gender-studies courses. "He doesn't let himself be called out. He didn't during the campaign, and he still doesn't. If you look at the rhetoric of recent presidential elections, it's as if all the candidates were running for town sheriff. They were trying to out-tough-guy each other. Except Obama."
He lets us know he's a man by shutting up about what a man he is. Since the start of his political career, he's been playing a tight, deliberately limited game. Bush was all over the place (cowboy, Yalie, oilman, good dold boy); so was Clinton (sensitive guy, poonhound, Rhodes scholar, slob). Obama sticks to a less-is-more script with a smarty-pants subtext: the knowledge that blustery masculinity doesn't fool anyone anymore. Especially Obama himself. He's got enough self-awareness to know just how ridiculous he'd look in the sheriff's hat. And if that inspires the rest of us to drop the cartoonish manhood act, well, God bless America.
THE "VICE" PRESIDENT
"Never trust a man who has not a single redeeming vice," advised Winston Churchill. Undoubtedly, the cigar-smoking alcoholic British prime minister with a penchant for gambling would—as the rest of morally imperfect male-dom has—find reason to trust Barack Obama.
There are plenty of pictures of Obama the candidate drinking with regular folks, but it has never really been enough that we want to have a beer with him. What establishes Obama's bona fides is not the higher-order transgressions that make handlers nervous but the casual, honest way he owns them: "When I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently," he once told an interviewer, in reference to Bill Clinton's obfuscation. "That was the point." Right—same for us. Thanks to Obama, the bong has been cleared of the hot air of abstinence. And there's no need for frat-boy braggadocio. It's a truth we hold self-evident that there's nothing wrong with a little something to take the edge off. "Pot had helped, and booze," he writes in his memoir, "maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though." In that last part, it's as if he's anticipating our next question—he knew that was where to draw the line, and that's where the rest of us should too.
On the campaign trail, Obama could be seen chewing Nicorette ("strenuously," as he put it) in place of the Marlboros (and not Lights or Mediums—Reds) he'd smoked for so long. Before he quit, the future leader of the free world accepted banishment to the porch, because he wanted nicotine as much as he wanted to respect his wife's wishes. The Marlboro Man would never have stood for that, but the new archetype of American masculinity is much more willing to compromise, especially when trying to balance hedonism and harmony at home. Suddenly we're a little less embarrassed to be drinking with the boys in basement man caves.
Obama is also prone to the occasional verbal screwup, like when he compared his bowling skills to those of a Special Olympian, or addressed a female reporter as "sweetie." "That's a bad habit of mine," he admitted. "I do it sometimes." And so should we. Adam Laukhuf
SIZE (OF THE BRAIN) MATTERS
In January, Barack Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said something we've all been hearing (and rolling our eyes at) since the sixth grade: "Never before has being smart been so cool." What sets this declaration apart is that—thanks to his boss—he is totally right.
Consider these scenarios, which would've had all the plausibility of a rain of frogs before No. 44 took office: Ashton Kutcher (when not Twittering his wife's ass) discussing the intersection of technology and journalism on Larry King Live. Pete fucking Wentz guest-blogging about child soldiers on the Huffington Post. The star presidential speechwriter Jon Favreau dating a lad-mag pinup—and the lad-mag pinup herself possessing a Harvard diploma and a gig as a White House staffer.
With the possible exception of the moving conclusion of Revenge of the Nerds, there has never been a better cultural moment to be brainy. Just ask the 76 Nobel laureates who endorsed Obama last October (28 more than John Kerry had). Or go to Zazzle.com and score a poster of our prez leaning against the bold white slogan bringing smart back or a T-shirt of him next to the words it's cool to be smart!
Everywhere you look, dudus americanus is not preying on the smart guy—he's aspiring to be him. As The Hills' ratings tank, National Public Radio's are breaking records. Time has usurped Cosmopolitan as the most-read magazine on American campuses. Lively bar banter? It's as likely to be about the prospects of diplomacy in Pakistan and Palestine as it is the relative merits of Van Halen and Van Hagar.
Chalk it up to Obama's new Camelot, where intelligence and alpha-male swagger are mutually inclusive. Being smart no longer conjures up images of the egghead in high-waisted slacks. In his place is someone who graduates magna cum laude from Harvard Law and nails three-pointers with aplomb. Someone who promises "to restore science to its rightful place" but rolls with Usher and spawns legions of adulating Obama Girls. Who doesn't want to be that guy?