In this morning’s announcement that he is co-hosting a podcast with Bruce Springsteen, Barack Obama says he plans to explore the pair’s “parallel journeys,” to connect their identities with the larger story of America. The trailer for Renegades: Born in the USA hits a note of tempered uplift, capturing the tough-hope vibe of Trump-era Obama. The former President still believes in America as a nation singularly situated to keep perfecting its union, but he knows what’s gone down. He positions the show as a potentially helpful project: Two deeply admired Americans chopping it up about their “fundamental belief in the American ideal—not as an act of nostalgia, but a compass, for the hard work that lies before us.” Together, Barack and the Boss just might help American ideal get up off the floor. Such is the star power, charm, experience and good intentions of all involved, that it seems, particularly as “Born in the USA” comes crashing in, like there might be something to it—but there’s only the further entwining of politics and content creation, which are already as skeevily involved as kissing cousins.
Renegades is made by Barack and Michelle Obama’s company, Higher Ground Productions, which is also responsible for Michelle’s Spotify podcast and a string of well-regarded documentaries: Crip Camp, the Oscar-winning American Factory, and Becoming, a polished look at … Michelle Obama. The company recently announced a number of upcoming scripted and unscripted Netflix projects that sound as inspirational, wholesome, representation- and change-minded as one would expect the Obamas’ output to be. One of their series, based on a Young Adult book, is about a Native American teen investigating a crime on her reservation; another is an animated series based on the children’s book Ada Twist, Scientist, about a little Black girl scientist; another is an adaptation of the literary/sci-fi/immigration novel Exit West.
These projects are explicitly trying to help change the kind of television that gets made, who we see on television and in what contexts, and—who knows!— some of them might even turn out to be good. Superficially, they are a well-intentioned win–win for Netflix, Spotify, and the Obamas, burnishing the platforms’ profiles while giving the couple a lucrative, creative, fun, soft-power way to reach a lot of people about issues that matter to them. In March, Netflix will premiere Waffles & Mochi, a children’s show starring two felt puppets and featuring Michelle Obama, that’s all about the virtues of healthy eating, her signature issue going back to her days in the White House.
The Obamas are producing far more content than any other former politicians, but they’re not the only ones. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have formed a production company of their own, Hidden Light Productions, which recently sold a show called Gutsy Women to Apple TV and is producing a series about an all-female Kurdish militia, turning fallout from a war she helped authorize into prestige TV. Unlike more par-for-the-course book deals and, lately, podcasts—the list grows every day: Mike Pence announced one just recently, joining Barack, Michelle, Hillary, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker among others—luxe TV content arrangements are one of the perkier spoils that can accrue to former, future, and semi-active politicians. But though it’s a rare privilege, exercising it is not without consequence. It suggests that one of the juiciest spoils of a life in public service is the chance to make TV, while also suggesting that making TV, and content more generally, is one of the better uses of their considerable social and political capital—all at a time when so much of public service already seems dangerously oriented around starring in television.
What’s at issue here is not just whether or not Renegade or Exit West are good unto themselves—if they change people’s minds, if they give us something to listen to while making dinner or even, in the case of Renegade, if they’re as corny as an extra-large with butter. What’s also at issue is what happens when we suture TV and politics even further together. Many politicians already treat politics primarily as a mode of performance, every moment and every policy as an occasion to play to the Fox News crowd, their social media followers, the base. The idea that political work is not passing legislation or concretely helping constituents, but becoming a voice, a personality, a brand, is a big part of our dysfunctional political culture, and how someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene can say she’s doing her job just by becoming a major cable news protagonist.
Content can be good and, in some instances, it can even do good, but content is not, itself, “good.” Any reading that privileges individual shows, podcasts, production slates (or subscription-based podcast networks) over society-wide ramifications is obtusely, perversely selective, attending to, say, Orange Is the New Black and not the man who recently departed the White House. Trump, after all, had his own kind of production deal, a show, The Apprentice, that did CPR on both his finances and his reputation. It set him up to take the White House, even though what he really wanted was a cable news network of his own. When he won, his major policy goal was to make himself the show.
That Michelle and Barack Obama are more responsible stewards of all things, including TV-making, than Trump is goes without saying, but it’s also beside the point. They are honorable people in a country that is off the honor system. NBC just premiered Young Rock, an affable sitcom based on Dwayne Johnson’s life that is narrated from the perspective of 2032, when The Rock is apparently President—something Johnson, in reality, has long been contemplating. That NBC would be willing to do this again in pursuit of even a half-hit makes you wonder if they’ll just keep trying to elect a president until they get it right.
It’s easy to draw a distinction between the plush, respectable production deals advancing good, liberal causes that only figures like the Obamas can get—bankrolled by elite streaming services, co-signed by other celebrities—and the right’s wannabe equivalent, which is mostly invitations to yak conspiracy theories on popular and dangerous cable news channels and community-guideline-free social media platforms. But this is a distinction without enough of a difference. The content is not the same, but in both cases Americans are inhabiting a world in which one of the cushiest rewards for doing politics is to get into content creation, whatever form it takes. That we have already followed this road to a terrible conclusion doesn’t seem to be keeping us from sauntering right along. If the journey is less horrible because Barack and the Boss are riding shotgun, it’d be better still if we weren’t walking this way at all.