He’s not boring, that’s for sure. But President Obama, who often sounds like actor Ben Stein’s monotone economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, needs a bit of The Nutty Professor if he wants to fully connect with Americans. At least that’s the message from Democratic advisers searching for Obama’s comeback path. “One of the problems here,” says longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart, “is that there is no easy way to laugh at this president.”
The goal is not for Obama to be the butt of ridicule—think Gerald Ford and his reputation for tripping down the stairs of Air Force One—but to joke around a bit more, especially at his own expense. It’s something Obama did well on the campaign trail but dropped upon entering the White House , Hart says. Just consider Obama’s press conferences. “How many times have you heard laughter?” Hart asks.
“Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan are the Mount Rushmore of presidential humor,” says political humorist Malcolm Kushner. “Obama was supposed to be like Kennedy, but I am really disappointed in Obama.” Kushner adds: “If Obama would make fun of himself more, people would like him.”
Former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry says humor can’t be undervalued in the White House. “I always say that humor is better at the White House than a flak jacket, and the best Washington humor is the self-deprecating kind,” he says. “President Obama can master that, and laughing at the occasional absurdities of his predicament would give people a reason to smile.” [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Others say that President Clinton was in a similar situation in 1994 after huge Democratic losses. Understandably humorless, he was urged to poke fun at himself and did so reluctantly—to widespread public applause. Unless Obama leads the way, says Hart, it’s going to be hard for others to make fun of this president. Some fear it could appear racial, he says. “You can’t use stereotypes and things that are there because it may go across the line.”
But without some lighthearted teasing, Hart finds that Obama isn’t relating to the nation as he did in his election campaign. “He’s gone from the big audiences and big crowds and big auditoriums to back gardens and backyards, and he’s still no closer to getting in touch with these people,” Hart says. “They just don’t feel that he touches them, that he reaches them, that he understands them; and if there is something he has to correct, he has to correct that more quickly than anything else.”