President Obama Toes the Line Between Being Funny and Being a Joke

The White House Correspondents Dinner is the last thing the president needs right now.

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This week was a good week for Mitt Romney: he gave his best speech yet and laid out his vision for the country (if you don’t have time to watch the whole video of his speech, the transcript is a must-read); Newt Gingrich announced he’s finally going to leave the race; and American Crossroads unveiled a devastating new ad called “ Cool.”

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

As they’d say in Boston, the ad is wicked good. Like the 1988 ad that Roger Ailes created of Michael Dukakis riding in a tank, you can’t help but smile. Shots of President Obama--shown slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, drinking a Guinness, wearing 3-D glasses, covering Al Greene’s falsetto, and slyly calling Kanye West a “jackass”--are accompanied by Yello’s “Oh Yeah,” which most of us remember from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  Here’s the text:

Four years ago, America elected the biggest celebrity in the world, and America got one cool president.  But after four years of a celebrity president, 1 in 2 recent college grads are jobless or underemployed...85% moving back in with their parents...student loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars.  After four years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?

Any one of those decisions--to appear on Jimmy Fallon’s show, or dance with Ellen, or call Kanye a “jackass”--can be rationalized away. These things are “no big deal,” “a guy’s gotta have fun,” hey, it’s important to “look connected.” After all, Mitt Romney has done Letterman’s Top Ten List. But there’s a downside, and this is it. Three years of cool-cat-moments have been aggregated into a package and set to music--they might as well have played LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It”--then followed by particularly jarring black-and-whites of grim economic statistics and young people. What makes it particularly effective is that it’s done with humor and goes right to the heart of the president’s biggest asset and turns his likability into a liability. If there will be more ads like this, and I bet there will be, it’s a disaster for the Obama campaign.

[ Read Robert Schlesinger: Top Strategists Don’t Like Their Parties’ 2012 Chances.]

The timing of the ad couldn’t be worse: this weekend is the White House Correspondents Dinner, and the president is expected to give a comedy monologue. That’s the last thing he needs right now. What used to be an off-the-record night will now be broadcast on MSNBC, and I’m sure the video of it will make the endless cable TV comedy highlights loop. Back in the day, the inside-Washington comedy nights--the Alfalfa Club, the Gridiron Dinner, even the early days of the White House Correspondents Dinner--were an opportunity to show everyone on the other side of the aisle that you didn’t take yourself too seriously, remind the White House press corps that you were self-deprecating, and that you saw the humor in life, all without the cameras rolling.

Now no one speaks to each other-- according to John Heileman of New York magazine, the president went for two years without talking to half-a-dozen of his own Cabinet members; other reports say he doesn’t speak with members of Congress or the Senate very often either. No wonder people think he’s aloof and unapproachable. These days in D.C., no one gives each other the benefit of the doubt. There are very few private moments anymore, no across-the-aisle friendships, no off-the-record laughs. That’s a big reason why so many Americans think Washington is broken.

It’s no mistake that there’s isn’t any footage of Lyndon Johnson on The Dick Van Dyke Show, or Jimmy Carter going on The Carol Burnett Show. It’s not because these leaders weren’t funny--some were very funny--but because they understood why it’s important to be presidential. They understood the power of the office, the responsibility of being commander-in-chief, the gravity of the job. General Eisenhower had his lighter moments, but he didn’t jump in and help Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory.

[ Read Super PAC Uses Obama's Hipness Against Him.]

President George H.W. Bush once told me as we worked on his White House Correspondents Dinner remarks: “The American people didn’t elect me to be a stand-up comic.” He was right. Don’t get me wrong, President Bush #41 is a very funny man with great comic timing. But President Bush--like many of other major figures in American politics like Tip O’Neill or Bill Clinton or James Baker or Ted Kennedy or Colin Powell--understood the difference between having a sense of humor and being seen as a joke. Barack Obama isn’t known for having the former, and he’s dangerously close to becoming the latter.