Analysis: Harold and Kumar Go to the White House

President Obama’s campaign video co-starring the movie stoners offers a stark contrast to Clint Eastwood’s chair act – and signals more pop culture-meets-politics strangeness to come.

The Republican and Democratic conventions, at least on a pop culture level, have come down to this: Dirty Harry vs. Harold and Kumar.

That’s the bizarre state we reached with the release Monday of a campaign video in which President Obama stars with the duo known more for a mission involving White Castle while high than the high-minded quest for the White House.
Obama’s YouTube acting turn, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, is proving as unexpected – and as potentially viral – as Clint Eastwood’s stand-up act/performance art piece with a chair at last week’s Republican National Convention. The bits also highlight generational differences in the ways the opposing campaigns are trying to use entertainment figures to gain points (even if some Democrats are pushing for nonagenarian Betty White to counter octogenarian Eastwood).
In the Obama video, the somber president picks up the phone and tells the unseen person on the other end, “Hey, this is Barack. Listen, I need to know if you’re on board… ’cause I’m counting on you.”
We soon see Kal (Kumar) Penn hanging up the phone as he sits in front of a TV with John (Harold) Cho, amid many snacks.
“Dude! Who was that?” Cho asks. “Sweet,” he says, when told the President was on the line.
In real life, Penn is a smart guy who worked as a staffer in the Obama White House – though he left in 2010 so that the world could have “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas.” The 53-second video is a promo for the online show Penn is hosting for the Obama campaign Thursday night – a program set to include interviews with Marc Anthony, Elizabeth Banks and Zach Braff, among other celebrities.
The line-up isn’t exactly out of the Eastwood era. The president clearly is playing to the youth-infused Internet crowd that helped get him elected in 2008. The differing approaches by the Democrats and Republicans underscore the perceived importance of pop culture in the campaign – and signal the likelihood of more strange celebrity-political juxtapositions to come.
Obama appears to have spent more time on entertainment shows than any sitting president, perhaps most notably stopping by “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to “slow jam” the news in April. Republican nominee Mitt Romney showed a self-effacing sense of humor in December by delivering a “Top 10 Things Mitt Romney Would Like to Say to the American People” list on “Late Show With David Letterman” (No. 6: "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!!!"). Speaking of “Saturday Night Live,” Romney reportedly is mulling an invitation to appear on the show.
Whether all this sullies the highest office in the land is a debate we’d like to see Eastwood have with Penn, Cho – and that famous chair. In the meantime, check out Harold and Kumar – and Obama:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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