President Barack Obama achieved yet another superlative this week. His appearance on Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis” instantly became the weirdest presidential appearance in memory. And it’s also a presidential first: the first sitting president to guest star in an Internet parody and one specializing in cringe-humor no less. If that seems an esoteric and unpresidential accomplishment, understand that it says as much about the decay of the bully pulpit as it does about President Obama.
It was only five years ago when Obama’s decision to appear on “The Tonight Show,” with host Jay Leno, was a certified Big Deal – never before had a sitting president gone on a late night talk show, prompting a chorus of concern about how Obama was trivializing the presidency. “Doing Jay Leno lessens the stature of the office and diminishes the man,” my friend and colleague Mary Kate Cary wrote for U.S. News at the time. “On Leno, he becomes just one more talk show guest, a celebrity on the circuit promoting his latest movie or book.”
Since then, Obama’s made three more appearances on “The Tonight Show.” He’s been on “The Daily Show” twice. He’s “slow-jammed” the news (on Jimmy Fallon’s old late-night show), and he’s made two appearances with David Letterman. And that doesn’t even take into account other things he’s done, like (as The New York Times noted) Google Hangouts and Facebook town halls, an interview about housing on Zillow.com and televised town halls on MTV, Black Entertainment Television, the Country Music Channel and Univision. Suffice it to say, the Obama administration has pursued a flood-the-zone communications strategy.
Even so, the “Ferns” appearance did blaze a new trail, with the host asking oddball questions (“I have to know: What is it like to be the last black president?”), and the guest lobbing caustic responses back (“Seriously? What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?”). Obama’s best moments came when Galifianakis called him a nerd, and the president shot back, “Do you think a woman like Michelle would marry a nerd?” adding that he was not going to let the first lady near the weird little host.
What gives? Why send the president there? Because that’s where the youngsters are, to paraphrase the apocryphal comment by the late bank robber Willie Sutton. The administration is trying to boost the ranks of “young invincibles” enrolling in Obamacare, and something like “Ferns” is an efficient way to do it. A White House aide told MSNBC host Peter Alexander that they wouldn’t be surprised if more people watched the “Ferns” video than the State of the Union address. That says a lot about the state of the “bully pulpit.”
In a sense, the story of the bully pulpit is the story of mass media. For much of the last century, that was a story of ever-expanding presidential reach.
First, radio dramatically increased the number of people a president could address at any one time – and that reach only grew as radio networks spread across the country. The same is true of television, which further expanded how many people presidents could reach, while also changing how they communicated, notably adding stagecraft to the presidential messaging tool kit as live remote broadcasts grew in importance.
And each revolution in media prompted an eventual evolution in presidential communications. Warren Harding was the first president to be heard on radio, but it wasn’t until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, more than a decade later, that a president figured out how to effectively communicate over the new medium, with FDR realizing that it afforded an intimacy that called for a lower-key style than, say, an address before a large crowd, requiring a thundering speech.
Similarly, while FDR was the first president to appear on television, in 1939, it was more than two decades before a president – John F. Kennedy – mastered the new medium, using televised news conferences to demonstrate his command of the issues and his wit. (Never mind that President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 became the only sitting president to win an Emmy, for his use and encouragement of television.) Later Ronald Reagan and his team would, in turn, set a new standard for using TV as a tool of the bully pulpit by grasping the televisual language of events.
But while the initial waves of the mass media revolution broadened a president’s reach, the recent developments – cable television’s profusion of channels, the Internet and social media – have reversed that tide, not empowering the bully pulpit, but fracturing it.
They certainly seem to have cracked the code in terms of campaigning and winning elections, but governing is a different animal. A president will eventually take his or her place alongside FDR, JFK and Reagan as being leaders who devised new ways to effectively use the bully pulpit in transformed media environments. Only in the fullness of time will we know for sure, but it seems unlikely that Barack Obama, for all of his communication talents, will be remembered as the president who cracked that code.
Mario Cuomo famously said that we campaign in poetry, but govern in prose; now it is an aphorism in search of an update: We campaign on Facebook but govern … how?