Pod Can’t Save America

Why are powerful leaders all trying to be Oprah Winfrey? From Obama's Netflix series to Bill Clinton's podcast, the political elite aren't content with being merely influential — they want to be influencers. But Pod Can't Save America, and we shouldn't come along for the ride.

Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at a book signing for their book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories for Courage and Resilience in New York City, 2019. (Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)

On a recent episode of her podcast You and Me Both, Hillary Clinton asked actor Kerry Washington a self-flattering question.

“There has to be a way of using storytelling to help us craft a new story, one that welcomes everybody in but asks hard questions of people and their own view of reality. It’s been harder due to social media trapping people in faux realities. You’re a storyteller, how do we do that?”

The implicit answer: stay tuned to this podcast — and content from other liberal leaders — coming to a screen, earbud, or airport bookstore near you.

The new kings and queens of feel-good infotainment increasingly resemble the guest list of an upscale DNC fundraiser. To name a few: Barack and Michelle Obama, the Clintons, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and Pete Buttigieg have podcasts, streaming TV shows, books, or all of the above.

The streaming services are paying big name Dems and friends lots of cash because “content centered on social messages — racial justice, gender equity, environmental stewardship — has been hot in Hollywood for some time,” according to the New York Times.

The past generation of liberal elites are happy to answer the bell. The reason, according to them, is that the obstacles to political change stem from flaws in the culture: hyperpartisanship, social media–fueled “mind control,” and a lack of inspiring messages in the media about tolerance and diversity. In other words: free your mind and the votes will follow.

Even in office, the last generation of liberal elites seemed to prefer soft power to hard power. Now, no longer content with letting their Hollywood donors fight the culture wars for them, the Democrats are building their own DC to LA pipeline, and are abandoning the crumbling empire of politics to build a media empire.

But can the ruling class really save America by wielding the sword of Spotify?

The New Obama Doctrine

For Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it’s a fresh twist on the old conundrum of what to do with a post-presidency.

“There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president,” John Quincy Adams once noted. He served as a congressman for nearly two decades after he left the White House. William Howard Taft aimed even higher, becoming the tenth chief justice of the United States after serving as president. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Jimmy Carter arguably has had more success outside of the Oval Office than in it.

In contrast, Obama and the former first lady cocooned themselves for the first half of the Trump administration only to reemerge in 2018 as fully formed wholesome American brands vying for our attention. Both have penned autobiographies, with Barack’s A Promised Land a whopping 768 pages. Michelle’s Becoming even got a glossy film treatment thanks to Higher Ground Productions, which the Obamas formed when they signed a multiyear deal with streaming giant Netflix.

In addition, they’ve produced a string of other documentaries and are expanding into scripted shows this year such as Waffles + Mochi, the just-released Netflix children’s show in which Michelle Obama and a pair of puppets teach kids how to eat better. Get ready for an Obama’s approved sci-fi flick, animated sitcom for preschoolers, and something called Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents.

To be clear, nothing in this profusion of content is objectionable — and some of it, like the disability rights doc Crip Camp and Oscar-winning American Factory — is worthwhile. But the shows in which the Obamas themselves take top billing tend to be ambling good-natured conversations most notable for their tepid blandness.

Michelle’s self-titled interview podcast consists primarily of patter with high-profile friends about health and relationships, with episodes on parenthood, marriage, and mentorship — almost like pleasant B-sides to Oprah’s long-running talk show.

Meanwhile, Barack and Bruce Springsteen’s laughably named Renegades: Born in the USA plays out like a long-form version of the singer’s recent Jeep commercial, “The Middle.” The underlying message is clear: what we need to cure America’s ills is the rootsy, hardscrabble wisdom of regular people (or, in this case, aging multimillionaires) who can have a respectful conversation and sober-minded moderation, a midway point between the far left and far right. Also, a Jeep Wrangler.

To be sure, the subjects bandied about by the Boss and the ex-boss are worthy issues, with episodes devoted to racism, class, and inequality. But the role of politics in solving these problems is oddly muted, especially considering a two-term president is involved. In episode six, for example, Obama recaps the hollowing out of the economy and the decline “of the American dream.” He cites globalization and the decline of unions for widening inequality but is suspiciously silent about his administration’s dealings with Wall Street.

Springsteen shrugs and blames the omnipresence of trash TV pioneer Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for the rise of hyperconsumption and greed in America. Obama responds to this media representation argument by essentially laying out a thesis explaining his career, both as president and now as media maven.

“There’s a collective story we tell about what we value and part of what I’ve tried to do … is to tell a story that is counter to the idea that the American Dream is defined by you being on top of the pyramid that’s getting steeper and steeper,” he says. (Meanwhile, Obama keeps climbing that same pyramid. His net worth is now $70 million, according to the International Business Times.)

This focus on storytelling and feeding yourself more nutritious media seems to reflect a curious lack of urgency in the face mounting crises. It’s as if the forces corroding our institutions and threatening the planet represented long-term philosophical dilemmas that need to be calmly workshopped and TED-talked rather than a series of imminent disasters.

Why clench your fist in resistance, Obama seems to be asking, when you can extend an arm for a handshake?

It’s the Media, Stupid

In her interview-heavy podcast You and Me Both, Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to shake your hand as much as deprogram your brain.

Like her old boss, she posits that polarization and a lack of shared narrative are the premiere crises of our time. But to Hillary, the Left and the Right alike are literally being mind controlled by social media companies and Internet-enabled bubbles inflated with bias-confirming information. How else could the nation have voted for Donald Trump over her if not for our fragile brains?

“How can I be deprogrammed if I don’t know I am programmed?” she asks Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who has his own recent Netflix entry, The Social Dilemma. “What can people do to have more control over their own minds?”

The answer, in short, is to log off from our mind control devices, says Harris (thanks, genius). But if we did that, we’d miss out on the never-ending cascade of Clinton family content.

In December, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton founded a film production company, HiddenLight Productions, to “share the stories of leaders — celebrated and unsung alike.” They’re currently working on an Apple TV Plus docuseries version of the feminist-friendly book they coauthored called The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience.

Also in the works from Hillary: a self-flattering mystery novel about a secretary of state who works to unravel a spate of terrorist attacks. Maybe she’s trying to one-up her husband, who is re-partnering with James Patterson for a sequel to The President Is Missing, a thriller about — get this — a president who is missing.

Bill Clinton’s entry into podcasting, Why Am I Telling You This?, has its own inessentiality built into the title, but it’s the best of the batch — even if that’s damning it with faint praise. Clinton plays fanboy with his cultural heroes like Magic Johnson and Wynton Marsalis but also doesn’t duck discussion of politics. On one revealing episode from last Presidents’ Day, he rates his presidential peers — based mainly on their commitment to the idea of inclusion. (Lincoln and FDR: good. Andrew Jackson and Trump: bad.)

In a rare moment of self-reflection, he even aw-shucks his own policy mistakes. “No president can win ’em all,” he says. “I wish I had passed universal health care, made a Middle East peace deal — I wish I had done a lot of things.”

But don’t look for any revelations here — just a soft nostalgia for the largely apolitical Clinton and Obama years, with an emphasis on feeling people’s pain rather than political projects to prevent the pain in the first place.

The Prince and the Podcaster

By far the worst of this batch is Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s podcast: Archewell Audio, created after they signed a crown jewel–sized Spotify deal inked last year estimated at $25 million in addition to their lucrative Netflix contract.

Last year, the artists formerly known as His and Her Royal Highness the Duke and Duchess of Sussex renounced their titles and traded life at Buckingham Palace for the palatial estates of Santa Barbara, California.

The transatlantic move, affixed with the nauseating moniker “Megxit,” was framed as a righteous way to seek space; well-deserved solace from the withering spotlight of their official roles. Yet earlier this month, they joined Oprah for a prime time televised confessional to tell their side of the messy family breakup to millions of viewers.

Hypocritical? Sure, but that’s not half as interesting as what it says for the heirs to the throne to kiss the Queen of All Media’s ring instead of Queen Elizabeth II’s. On a headline-grabbing night, when Oprah asked Harry and Meghan to “speak their truth,” the only honest answer would have been that the carefully staged interview was part of a PR push intended to leverage the attention economy and promote a new product.

The product is themselves, not as Prince and Duchess, but as enlightened content creators.

“We’re here to bring forward different perspectives and voices you haven’t heard before and find common ground,” Harry says somberly in the preview episode. “Through that, change really is possible.”

Cut through the bullshit faux–social justice phrases (“elevating voices,” “starting conversations,” and “creating communities and safe spaces”) and the formula is identical to the rest of the pack — a platform for the couple to interview their favorite celebrities and do-gooder friends from the upper heights of the professional managerial class, a place where you can learn that The Late Late Show’s James Corden loved spending time at home during quarantine and that Zoom calls were important to Elton John.

The dynastic duo, who once vowed to “modernize the monarchy,” insist they’re still agents of progressive change. But their vision of how to usher in that change involved no challenge to the monarchy itself, or even to royal protocol (unlike, say, Jeremy Corbyn).

Instead, they’re doing what the rest of us do: posting online.

In the era of prestige TV, who needs the crown when they can have The Crown?