WASHINGTON – So much of President Barack Obama’s personal life is shrouded in mystery.
Who was on the guest list to his star-studded 55th birthday party last week at the White House? The administration is not naming names.
Nearly two full presidential terms had passed and more than 300 golf rounds had been played before Obama on Sunday finally divulged his handicap (an “honest” 13). The secrecy surrounding his golf game is so extreme that White House aides have been known to drape tablecloths over clubhouse windows to prevent reporters from catching a glimpse of him hacking his way down the fairway.
But on Thursday, the White House did offer an insight into Obama’s interior life, a small dispatch from his summer vacation this week in idyllic and exclusive Martha’s Vineyard. For the second year in a row the president offered up a list of 40 songs – 20 for the daytime and 20 for night – that he is listening to this summer.
This sort of sharing has become a regular part of the Obama White House. The president has made no secret of his favorite television shows, which tend to run toward the edgy drama (“Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones”) and sophisticated soap (the “Downton Abbey” cast dropped by the White House in 2015 for a visit).
Bill Clinton often spoke of his fondness for mystery novels. Obama’s tastes, based on seven years of vacation reading lists, fall solidly into the category of high-brow literary fiction and nonfiction.
White House officials say the lists reflect Obama’s passions and curiosities. In a digitally dominated era that tends to diminish, isolate, caricature and deflate, they are intended to provide a fuller picture of a young president who has grown and matured on the job.
“How do you reach people worn down by cynicism, boredom and disinterest?” said a senior administration official who was granted anonymity to speak frankly. “That’s really what we are up against.”
Taken together, the lists – especially the summer Spotify playlists – add up to an ever-evolving urban, coastal, hip and taste-making Obama lifestyle brand. They have helped turn the president into an arbiter of culture and cool, even as they have cemented his reputation as a blue-state elitist.
As recently as his last State of the Union address, Obama confessed that one of the “few regrets” of his presidency was that the “rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
In this era of deepening political polarization, Obama could try to use his fluency with pop culture to reach out to those more conservative parts of America where he is viewed with suspicion or even hostility. But his most recent playlist follows a pattern set by previous forays: There is no pandering.
Over the three playlists, spanning some 94 songs, Obama has yet to pick up a single country music song.
Fans of the president will be charmed by his selection of artists such as jazz legends Nina Simone and more obscure artists including Floetry, Caetano Veloso, Acid Rain and Gin Wigmore. Those predisposed against him are likely to recall Republican operative Karl Rove’s description of Obama circa 2008: “He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.”
The president’s use of pop culture reflects a broader sorting of Americans into political parties that are far more oriented around ideology, values and culture, said political scientists. As a result, it has become much harder for any politician to woo skeptics across the growing divide. “Obama’s approval rating has been remarkably stable,” said John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “Some of that reflects an absence of big wars, recessions or scandals. But is it is also indicative of our politics.”
Early in his second term, Obama tried to win over red-state, pro-gun skeptics by releasing pictures of him firing a shotgun Camp David. These days he jokes about shooting more than he actually does it.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Obama said last month learning about the accuracy of a .54-caliber gun mounted on the Navy ship he was touring in Spain. “That’s better than I do at skeet shooting.”
A much discussed “Whiskey Summit” designed to forge ties with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., never happened.
Indeed, Obama’s most recent music list suggests that when it comes to matters of culture and taste, he no longer much cares who he offends.
Late in Obama’s first term, the president and first lady were criticized for inviting Common to an evening of poetry at the White House. Conservatives insisted that the rapper’s anti-war “Burn a Bush” lyric, aimed at Obama’s predecessor in the White House, made him unworthy of a White House visit.
The White House press secretary felt obliged to note that Common’s White House invitation was not an endorsement of his lyrics as much as his “work with children.”
This year Common’s “Forever Begins” made the list.
White House officials said that the president’s forays into pop culture are often designed to reach a particular group of Americans. “You have to be very demographically strategic,” said the White House official. “People retreat into their little encampments and so you have to visit all of them.”
Sometimes a presidential appearance in a new venue is designed to reframe an issue. On a global warming themed trip to Alaska last year, Obama dropped in on the survivalist Bear Grylls’s television show. The goal was to encourage people to view climate change as a threat to the country’s natural splendor, rather than just a political or economic issue, White House officials said.
The president’s pop culture appearances, though, rarely break with his broader brand. Obama could have chosen a hunting or fishing program that would appeal more to white, working-class Americans, said Charles Murray, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and author of “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2000.”
“Bear Grylls is the elite end of that genre,” he said. He suggested that if Obama really wanted to appeal to white, working-class America that he should attend a NASCAR race or “allow himself to be photographed drinking Coors Lite out of can.”
Ultimately, Obama’s choices in his solitary pursuits of reading and listening may have far more to do with personal taste than politics. Last summer, after he picked Low Cut Connie’s “Boozophilia” for his summer playlist, the obscure band took to Facebook to express their befuddlement.
“We are speechless and honored and humbled and ecstatic and confused,” they wrote.
So what message was Obama really trying to send when he plucked the Philadelphia-based rock band out of obscurity?
James Miller, a former rock critic for Newsweek and a professor of political science at the New School offered one answer.
“It seemed to me like the playlist of a real person,” he said.