Barack Obama, yesterday, tweeted — or was made to appear as if he had tweeted by a well-meaning communications staffer — about his favorite Netflix series.
As of this writing, Obama’s professed fealty for “House of Cards,” the political drama whose entire second season dropped late last night, has received some 30,000 retweets. And — no matter what one thinks of the series — it’s a deeply weird and tone-deaf moment for the White House.
“House of Cards” depicts a broken Washington in which one man has been able to consolidate power by dint of sheer ruthlessness. It’s fun to watch both for its fantastical elements (the specifics of our protagonist’s antisocial behavior are fairly hard to believe at times) and for its attitude, that politics is a reflection of human nature and both are irredeemable.
Obama, a TV fan who’s also said he watches “Homeland” and referenced “Mad Men” in the State of the Union, is certainly free to enjoy whatever he wants. And that he’d watch the show is perfectly sensible; it’s prestigey and also entertaining, subject matter entirely aside. But it sends out a strange message when the president of the United States tweets about how much he wants to watch a show whose characters treat the fate of the nation and its citizens as just another plaything in their fight for more power.
The president and his communications team are clearly trying to signal that the man is just like you or I, that he loves watching zeitgeisty television; the tweet feels like a rather sad attempt to hop onto a trending topic (and I’m eager to see what Obama tweets during this year’s Emmys!). But the fact is, he simply isn’t just another couch potato with a Roku box: He has access to vastly more power and information about how power works in this country than does a layman. It’s weird he’d tout how much fun he finds “House of Cards,” a show a civilian can watch with no real-life knowledge, but that a president would either find risible and not true-to-life, or realistic in ways that are chilling. It portrays a state of affairs he either cannot relate to to the degree that it might as well be sci-fi for him, or a realistic enough state of perpetual partisan warfare he ought to be working against in the manner he promised in 2008. Sure, he’s faced intransigence, but shouldn’t “House of Cards” feel frustrating, not entertaining, for any politician?
The same is true, somewhat, of newsperson cameos — so far, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield have dropped by. Real journalists dropping into the “House of Cards” universe complicates the fact that the very fun of the show is glorying in how degraded the world has become. Journalists eagerly volunteering to pretend to be played for dupes seems like a strange use of their time, and an endorsement of a particular worldview.
It’s a Film Studies 101 truism that all art is inherently political; “House of Cards,” which frames itself merely as a jaunty story of one man you just love to hate and his rise to the top, is no exception. To watch the show over a compressed period of time is to be forced to acknowledge that the American political system runs on graft — not because of the specifics of what Underwood does or does not do in the big moments, but because the little details of his rise are so unexceptional. It’s been ratified by the president, after all.