How do you know when a President is a pop-culture fixture? When he becomes a can of soda. During the coverage of Barack Obama's swearing-in, Pepsi showed off a new advertising campaign that audaciously hopes to benefit from his buzz. Brandishing graphics similar to Obama's change ads and a new logo not unlike his red-white-and-blue O, the spots declared, "Yes you can"--get it? can?--and announced, "Every generation refreshes the world."
Joining Pepsi's quest for O-mentum are advertisers like Audi ("Progress is beautiful") and Ikea ("Embrace change"). Trying to make a buck off the zeitgeist is an old story, but these ads also capture a particular mood of today. America right now is like some kind of agitated subatomic particle holding two opposite charges at once: dread and excitement. Just so, these ads convey both desperation--someone, please, buy something!--and the thrilling sense that a big change is afoot in the country's mind-set. (See pictures of the best Obama inaugural merchandise.)
All around, there's a sense of pop culture trying to feel its way toward the next thing, the new tone, whatever it might be. On 24, Jack Bauer is getting philosophical about torture. American Idol is trying to be nicer to its bad singers. Even Clint Eastwood's hit Gran Torino--in which a racist retiree snarls at Asian gang bangers to "get off my lawn" as he protects a young Hmong neighbor--is ultimately not the reactionary return of Dirty Harry but the 20th century grouchily giving way to the 21st.
To say that the culture is changing with President Obama's election is not to say that he has made it change. That may be a taller order for a President than rescuing an auto industry. Cultural trends have a life span, and some of the Bush era's--reality TV, say, or terrorism dramas or slasher movies--may just be tired out. Bush didn't create them, but they helped set and capture a tone in the country after 9/11: wary, on edge, in your face.
But a President can tap into changes in the culture and encourage them. When Obama rejected, in his Inaugural speech, the "stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long," he was rejecting an attitude--of baby-boom cultural warfare, of cable shouting matches, of all-or-nothing showdowns--and betting that his audience was tired of them too.
As a mixed-race President, Obama literally embodies a changing culture. Every stand-up routine about the differences between black folks and white folks is visibly lamer than it already was. But that's not just because Obama is half-black and half-white; it's because he is neither typically black (he comes out of the immigrant, not the slave, experience) nor typically white. Like Slumdog Millionaire or a mash-up CD, Obama represents a crossing of cultures. His story makes a larger argument: that nothing is as simple as it's made out to be. Black and white is not simply black and white. And neither, therefore, are our eternal us-vs.-them arguments over faith, sex or war.
You could see this mood reflected in We Are One, the Inaugural concert aired on HBO. Bruce Springsteen kicked off the show with "The Rising," his 2002 anthem to the heroes of 9/11. The song evolved over the Bush years; it began as a eulogy, then was used as a campaign song by both John Kerry and Obama. Now it played as if America was looking back to the early days after 9/11 and asking for a do-over, to return to the moment before that communal spirit curdled into acrimony.