Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, and the first African-American president of the United States, has worked hard to cultivate an image of accessibility. He tweets, he jokes, he sings, he laughs. He made a Spotify playlist. He stopped by St. Paul’s Union Depot for a rally of rock star proportions. He cooled off with ice cream from St. Paul’s Grand Ol’ Creamery. And he ate at The Bachelor Farmer, one of the Twin Cities’ coolest restaurants.
What Tiger Woods did for golf, President Obama did for government. Say what you will about his policy and politics, one thing is undeniable,
Obama made the White House cool.
But those are pretty minor things. He’s always been cool, and that’s not something that switches off when you become president.
It’s his avid enthusiasm for the advancements and progress in science and technology that makes him truly stand out.
Obama’s South by South Lawn turned grass that was once kept tidy by hungry cows into a celebration of technology, ideas, creativity, and, in a word, the future. According to the official www.whitehouse.gov, it was, “…a festival to celebrate the spirit of innovation and bring together creative thinkers and entrepreneurs from across the country to discuss how we can tackle some of our biggest challenges.”
A fusion of art and tech, science and music, #SXSL brought out some of the nation’s best and brightest for a day of revelry and fun, of ideas and innovation, and for an opportunity to eat cookies with the president. Leonardo Dicaprio came out to talk climate change and saving the environment. Rapper Common wore VR glasses. The preteen cast of Stranger Things danced in front of George Washington’s portrait. 3D-printed prosthetic arms reached for the sky above the White House.
It was a festival, yes. But more than just a festival, SXSL proved that Obama wants to not only reach out to the demographic inheriting this country (both its problems and brightest spots), but place stuffy U.S. politics, which at times can feel stagnant when discussing progress, firmly in the midst of the nation’s most creative thinkers. No matter who moves in next, they will be cooler just by association (though it is unlikely that Trump will host anything that celebrates innovation, the Dap Kings or Stranger Things).
Obama guest-edits the November 2016 issue of Wired Magazine
What Obama started with SXSL, he continued with the November 2016 issue of Wired Magazine. But while the festival was a celebration, this project was clearly personal.
The issue is broken up into five categories: Personal Frontiers, Local Frontiers, National Frontiers, International Frontiers, and Final Frontiers. It explores the boundaries of human ability. It discusses innovation that can stretch as far as the cosmos, or just work to improve quality of life for you, your family, neighbors, and friends. It asks the biggest question of where can we go from here?
Whether it’s combating climate change or reaching Mars on a grand scale, or creating a prosthetic limb for a disabled child born without one on a more intimate scale, the answers come from innovations like these.
Everything from precision medicine, to neural imaging that gives scientists an unprecedented look at the human mind, to urban planning and the future of cities, to the importance of immigrants for innovation in the U.S., to hacking and WiFi, to the potential for human life on Mars and beyond, is covered here. It’s possibly the most forward-looking issue of Wired ever published, and Obama’s hand prints are all over it.
What perhaps gives the best insight into the president’s own inspirations were the lists of books and science-fiction films he created for the issue. His essential reading includes titles both predictable, like The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and unpredictable, like John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, and works important to today, like Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History for a comprehensive look at the ideas that have shaped his worldview, and policy, over the last eight years.
(Perhaps most notably, he has been incredibly outspoken about climate change and the environment: A Historic Commitment to Protecting the Environment and Reversing Climate Change)
His list of science-fiction films reveal an inner geek; it’s not a list that would be unfamiliar to cinephiles and sci-fi enthusiasts, but that’s sort of the point. Obama shows his passion for the arts, as he did with SXSL, as they relate to the human condition. In this instance, the human need to explore, to go further, and to ask why. These films all look towards a future where man has overcome obstacles, conquered his fear, all the while asking questions about who, and what, we are and what we can be.
The full list of books can be found here: President Obama’s Essential Reads
The full list of films, and how to watch them, can be found here: How to Watch President Obama’s Essential Sci-Fi TV and Films.
Why this is important
2001: A Space Odyssey (the film at the top of Obama’s sci-fi films list) came out in 1968. The President-Elect that year, Richard Nixon, had a very different, and smaller, view of space travel. He made three key decisions regarding the government’s role,
- To treat the space program as one area of domestic policy competing with other concerns, not as a privileged activity
- To lower U.S. ambitions in space by ending human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit for the foreseeable future and not embark on another space goal requiring a massive investment similar to Apollo
- To build NASA’s post-Apollo program around the space shuttle without establishing a specific goal or long-term strategy the shuttle would support
that defined (limited) NASA policy and space travel for the decades to come. These are clearly different times. But the point is, a president’s views and policy today can have an impact on the views and policy of the country for years after he’s left office.
Obama’s push for science and tech to combat climate change, to improve our cities, and to improve life for the least of us here on earth takes precedence over his vision for reaching beyond the stars. But it’s precisely that vision that shows how passionate he is about exploring the limits of humankind. He is a U.S. president that has always understood that being there are no limits that are un-testable, no glass ceilings unbreakable, no boundaries un-pushable.
It’s more than just relevant songs and movies and books that humanize the notion of what it means to be president (and certainly cement his status as the hippest POTUS of all time). No longer just a figurehead in a far-off castle, Obama lives up to his rock-star status by simply being real. It’s respect not only for policy, but for a man who embodies what he believes, and pushes his country and its citizen to embrace a better and brighter future.
But it’s also bigger than just what he believes.
It has become necessary now more than ever to apply this type of thinking toward fixing the world’s problems. Never before have the problems facing us, and more importantly our future generations, seemed so insurmountable. But never before have we had such opportunity and ability, such access to knowledge, and such ingenuity as a population to solve these problems for good. The only thing holding us back is ourselves; the divisiveness that we allow to separate us, and the fear that spreads across our communities like a plague (something our scientists now know how to defeat, btw). The future looks bright, if we only allow ourselves to see it.
As Obama writes in Wired, “Now is the greatest time to be alive,” and he’s right.
And that’s pretty cool.