Most presidents are easy to pin down on our cultural maps. Ronald Reagan was raised in Dixon, Ill., but we placed him in Hollywood, telling America's story on the big screen. Bill Clinton may have been the Man from Hope, Ark., but the mischief of nearby Hot Springs was in his blood. George W. Bush was practically born on the Yale campus, yet Texas was his true terroir.
Which brings us to Barack Obama, who belongs ... where exactly? Kansas? Kenya? Hawaii? Harvard? None of these quite fit our blender in chief, but it struck me recently that Obama does have a cultural home: he's the first President from Sesame Street. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
When Sesame Street founder Joan Ganz Cooney met Obama at a fundraiser last year, she was prepared to hear what she always does. "I'd have bet you a million dollars," she says, "that [Obama] would tell me how his kids watched Sesame Street." But instead the President-to-be told her that he and his little sister watched the show. "I realized that this is the first President young enough to say that."
The Obamas clearly have a deeper personal connection to the show than their White House predecessors did; it was aimed, after all, at kids like them. (Full disclosure: I have a personal connection too; some of my friends work on Sesame Street, and they aren't furry.) When Michelle Obama visited the set in Queens, N.Y., to talk about "healthy habits" a few weeks ago, she was practically fizzing. "I'm on a high," she said. "I never thought I'd be on Sesame Street with Elmo and Big Bird." Let it be noted that this visit came after she'd met the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace and welcomed Stevie Wonder to the White House and enjoyed all kinds of other not-too-bad perks of being First Lady. "I think it's probably the best thing I've done so far in the White House."
The President is every bit as much a product of the show, but it's not just his age and mastery of the alphabet that make Obama the first Sesame Street President. The Obama presidency is a wholly American fusion of optimism, enterprise and earnestness rather like the far-fetched proposal of 40 years ago to create a TV show that would prove that educational television need not be an oxymoron. Unlike Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans in their idyllic Treasure House, or the leafy land of the suburban sitcom, Sesame's characters were colorful, their milieu was urban; there was noise and grime and grouches, and they hung out on the stoop, not the porch. Parents who were not white, not rich, not able to afford a fancy preschool knew this show was designed for them. Maybe it would level the playing field a little. (See pictures of Barack Obama's college years.)
It wound up doing much more. Sesame Street is now the longest street on the planet. It runs from Harlem to Honolulu; on to Obama's childhood home in Indonesia, where Jalan Sesama celebrates unity through diversity; through South Africa, where one Muppet is HIV positive; through Israel and Palestine and Egypt, where girls are told how important it is that they keep reading and learning. It creates citizens of a highly globalized, post-racial world. "The only kids who can identify along racial lines with the Muppets," genius puppeteer Jim Henson observed, "have to be either green or orange."
And yet for all its empathy, Sesame Street has been highly cerebral as well, the perfect hatchery for the Empirical Presidency. It is the most heavily researched children's show ever, conceived by an experimental psychologist, incubated in a Harvard seminar room, vetted by linguists and nutritionists and child-development experts (who once vetoed a segment in which Elmo crawled inside the letter O because they feared that a toddler might see it as permission to climb into a toilet). Obama famously prizes intellect over instinct; he says he wants to see the data and for the data to drive the decision. Sesame writers test-drive their skits on focus groups of young children to see how long they can hold the kids' attention and how well the writers deliver their desired message; if the kids drift, the segment dies. The same can be said of any number of Obama's dreamier campaign promises.
Sesame Street's genius lies in finding gentle ways to talk about hard things death, divorce, danger in terms that children understand and accept. The polls can tell a President what the American people want to hear, but after so many years of sandbox politics and childish games, there comes a time to grow up. Given the hard choices, does the President think we're ready to handle complexity and delay gratification? If not now, when? Professor Obama has at least talked to us like we're adults. The question remains whether President Obama will govern as though he believes it.