It was a not-especially-balmy 49 degrees (the ground still slick with rain) when he appeared at the top of the stairs, preceded by security detail and, of course, Michelle. Diners at Upland, the California-inflected brasserie in Flatiron, would have a story they could tell their great-grandkids: about the day they saw President Obama — gracious, handsome, tieless — while taking forkfuls of little-gem salad. The appearance was just one stopover on Obama’s victory lap through New York, in which the former president demonstrated his adjustment to normal personhood (or as normal as one can be while lunching with Bono). And like that, with a smile and wave, he was gone. Did we imagine him? Did he say hello to us? Did you see how good he looked?
There he was, sporty and smiling with Richard and Michelle on Necker Island, and then again, rocking a leather jacket and jeans at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. Pretty cool, wrote VanityFair.com. Fashion dad, proclaimed Mashable. Danny Zuko, said the Daily News. GQ’s Style Guy even tweeted that Obama was on his way to rocking Vetements. And it’s true, post-presidential Obama does look different — energetic, more public, quicker to break into a grin. But while Number 44 certainly looks good, let’s not overreach (though when has the internet ever trafficked in hyperbole?). If anything, Obama these days looks not fashion-y (or God forbid, “cool”), but perfectly, passably, post-presidentially appropriate.
Take a look at that photo with the leather jacket. A handsome brown shade, surely, but — and GQ notes this — a mite big. The dark-wash denim improves upon those infamous dad jeans, but the pants are still hiked up nearly to the navel. And in a classic dad move, his shirt is tucked in, exposing a wide belt that is less Vetements (or even Brioni) than Jos. A. Bank. Head to toe, the look is adequate: a post-midlife getup your dad might wear as he talks your ear off about his new standing desk or Bulletproof-coffee routine. But paper-doll the clothes onto Brad Pitt or Will Smith or George Clooney — all within spitting distance of Obama’s age and build — and you’d think they were on the set of some Noah Baumbach film, playing fathers in crisis.
So why are we grading on a curve? It may square more neatly with the post-presidential swagger narrative (How Barry Faced a Wiretap Accusation and Got His Groove Back), but the before-and-after gets a little fudgy with the facts. It’s not exactly true that Obama ditched office and discovered style. He’s looked damn good without a tie for years. He looked pretty boss (and jacked) while on holiday in Oahu wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap back in 2014. And that same leather jacket has been in rotation since 2013 (even with those jeans). It’s only now that we’re paying attention — and heaping the president with sartorial praise.
The obvious truth is that we expect something different of politicians, who should be too busy devoting precious energy to pushing through a new health-care bill or waging campaigns against ISIS to tend to something so trivial as fashion. For all of us who considered Trump’s Scotch-taped tie a fitting analogy for his Potemkin village of a presidency, there were those corners of the internet that applauded his thrift, relatability, and ingenuity. They’re the same who’d argue that comparing Obama to Pitt or Clooney is apples and oranges — those guys are movie stars whose job it is to project glamour and celebrity. Obama’s concerns, presumably, are loftier.
One president defied those expectations, though, with his tortoiseshell sunglasses, Omega Ultra Thin, and Top-Siders. John F. Kennedy — the prototypical avatar of presidential style — ushered in a notion of elegance (in all its well-bred, New England casualness) that men’s magazines have been mining for decades. The (probably apocryphal) legend that Kennedy killed the hat endures because it’s plausible. We can believe that J.F.K. — this politician — could define an entire generation’s stylistic agenda with a rule-breaker’s attitude, as if someone had attempted to hand Kennedy his hat and he just lifted his hand: “Nah, I’m good.”
So perhaps we should hold President Obama to a higher stylistic standard. Yes, he looks great right now — better, perhaps, than 99% of men in America — but we can’t pretend he’s aced the thing when we really mean to give him points for trying, for following boilerplate dictates like matching the jacket to the belt to the shoes or losing the stonewashed jeans. To borrow a metaphor, Obama right now is an unstylish person’s idea of what a stylish man looks like. Obama looks nice. Relaxed, even. (In fact, the one dissonant moment in all of the post-presidential style discussion was the backwards cap, when Obama committed the cardinal sin of trying too hard.). But to call him fashionable — much less trendsetting — would be premature. Obama has yet to demonstrate what it takes to be truly stylish: a conviction that it isn’t contradictory for a person of substance to care about the clothes they wear (something, by the way, that Michelle learned a long time ago).
But 2017 Obama offers glimmers of hope. It’s only now spring, and his most recent appearances suggest that his style is — in the parlance — evolving, so who knows what summer or fall could have in store? Let’s see him ditch the duct-tape belt for something a little trimmer from Berluti. He might lose the button-down (why is there a T-shirt underneath?) and pull on a Massimo Alba band-collar shirt. Or would Saint Laurent Chelsea boots be so out of the question? That’s the presidential style I want to see. Let’s not take such a dim view of what a serious person’s fashion aspirations can be — I’ll be ready to call Obama stylish when he’s rocking extra-roomy, pleated Brunello trousers. And maybe we save the Vetements for 2018.