The White House on Snapchat and President Obama's digital legacy


(Photos via Snapchat).

On Monday, just a day before Obama delivered his final State of the Union address, the White House joined Snapchat, premiering its account with a short video that panned up from the floor to reveal the president’s desk in the Oval Office. The moment screamed “exclusive access.” After all, not even a Kardashian can offer live footage from the desk of the most powerful leader in the world.

The White House joining the evanescent social platform is the final frontier in the Obama administration’s quest to connect with a younger generation of Americans online — a move that has as much to do with solidifying his legacy as it does with pushing his policies.

Ever since his successful digital grassroots campaign in 2008, the president has recognized technology as a mobilizing medium. During his tenure in the White House, his team has slowly collected accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Facebook to bolster its messaging machine. And the president himself has settled comfortably into the role of sometime social media star: deadpanning on “Between Two Ferns,” voguing for Buzzfeed, and, —most recently, —talking about nothing in particular on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

Obama’s team has been successful in its social media campaigns because it has avoided the all-too-common strategy of carpet-bombing every platform with a single piece of content. It recognizes that genuinely communicating to an audience requires understanding the differences in format and digital culture of each app. For instance, Michelle Obama delivered a “turnip for what” pun on Vine that would’ve likely seemed too weird and fast on Facebook. A recent photo of snowmen on the White House lawn got more than 28,000 likes on Instagram, though it would have quickly been buried if it were posted into a sea of breaking news on Twitter. The president assured Twitter in a Q&A that he too thought peas in guacamole were disgusting, when no other normal person would care. In the same way Gary Walsh follows around Selina Meyer on “Veep,” Obama’s social media whisperers are always in the background, offering tips to appease the new online audiences he faces on any given day.

And their attention was no less acute when it came to debuting on Snapchat. As White House Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman told Yahoo News in a statement provided by the White House, his goal for promoting the State of the Union address was not to try to push excerpts of a speech to whoever would click, but to echo the president’s message of confidence and strength in challenging times.

“The idea was that even if your only exposure to the SOTU were a few Instagram posts, your takeaway should be that the President is hopeful and optimistic about the future,” he said.

To appeal to a demographic that rarely tunes in to the president’s speech on cable news, Goldman aimed to pique Snapchatters’ interest by offering a firsthand look at what happens at the White House in the runup to the State of the Union speech.

“We wanted to do it in a way that was appropriate for the audiences and format of Snapchat,” Goldman said. “To actually create a behind the scenes feeling, we had a few different people contributing to the account so that — in the course of a busy day — we could pull back the curtain on the small reception happening in the residence; show what State of the Union preparations mean for the principals here at the White House, and approximate the experience of over-caffeinated staffers running around to make it all happen.”

It’s this savvy attention to detail that has likely delayed the White House’s embrace of Snapchat until the final year of Obama’s presidency. Not only does running a successful Snapchat feed require an extraordinary amount of time and access to the goings-on of the leader of the free world, but it also requires acknowledging a certain celebrity status. After all, the platform’s most famous users are rich, successful stars who charm audiences by staring into their screens. Kylie Jenner pouts at the camera and shows off her nails. Justin Bieber posts videos of his skateboarding tricks. DJ Khaled waters his plants while spouting off the keys to success (something the White House even tipped its hat to in one pre-SOTU snap).


(Photos via Snapchat).

On Tuesday evening, the White House Snapchat feed featured a recognizable cast of characters who took on similar roles. Sunny and Bo romped in the White House lawn. Joe Biden, wearing aviator sunglasses, mugged for the camera phone with all the swagger of his Onion-imagined alter ego. Jill Biden and DC-based rapper Wale took a selfie. Michelle Obama gave viewers a first look at her much-discussed marigold Narciso Rodriguez dress. We even saw a wistful paparazzi-esque video of the Obamas hurrying off to their Secret Service car on the way to Capitol Hill. It’s a glamorous affair to be president, especially when you consider the Snapchat feeds of the current presidential contenders, who seem lost in the middle of America among a sea of dingy cafes and faceless crowds.

Ultimately, the White House on Snapchat is about securing the Obama brand. For a generation of people who stare at their phones for entertainment, the series of 10-second of clips and photos will likely be more memorable than Obama’s 58-minute speech. It might not be the best way to inform the public, but it’s a genius way to stay present in the minds of millennials long after you’re out of office.