Most presidents become a joke at some point. It's a matter of when and how. Both points should concern this president. In Winston Churchill's words, "a joke is a very serious thing." Or it can be, when the joke is about a very serious thing.
"Saturday Night Live" has long been a comedic benchmark. Last weekend, SNL took its first hard hit at President Obama. Fred Armisen, who plays the president, gave an Oval Office address questioning why some critics were distraught with him transforming the country: "When you look at my record it's very clear what I've done so far and that is nothing. Nada. Almost one year and nothing to show for it."
Political satire matters when it is larger than the joke. The growing rap on Obama is that he is a man both ineffective and meek; a man who is loved by all and feared by none.
Bill Maher hit the punch line first in mid-June: "You don't have to be on television every minute of every day. You're the president, not a rerun of 'Law & Order'... TV stars are too worried about being popular and too concerned about being renewed."
Soon Maher came to his key point: "You're skinny and in a hurry and in love with a nice lady, but so is Lindsay Lohan. And just like Lindsay, we see your name in the paper a lot but we're kind of wondering when you're actually going to do something."
Jon Stewart has been in on the joke all week. On Monday, Stewart hit Obama for "appeasing" the health care and energy industries. On Tuesday, Stewart showed clips of Obama's repeated campaign promises to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
Stewart to Obama: "I know you have a lot on your desk plate. But as a thin man who smokes, you may not understand the concept. All that stuff you've been putting on your plate, it's f-cking chow time, brother. That's how you get things off of your plate. "
The Olympics only helped reinforce the punch line. The president went to Copenhagen to rally for his hometown. Analysts assumed that the White House was in on a secret. The president could tip the vote? But Chicago lost on the first round. The president looked powerless.
Many Sunday political shows touched on Obama's Olympic failure. Was it a metaphor? On ABC's "This Week," George Will said yes. He listed Obama's big initiatives abroad and the absence of progress. "Saying no to the president is a habit," Will argued. "The world adores him and ignores him." The digs came from all sides. But SNL brought the point home.
Smart administrations take jokes seriously. By the spring of 1982, Ronald Reagan's staff was concerned by a running joke. A new comedy record was popular, portraying Reagan as the amicable dunce.
Satire helped undermine both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. And as Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, put it then: "the danger" of political satire "arises when the humor portrays the president as silly or impotent or portrays what he's trying to do as irrelevant--when it attacks some of the basic elements of his leadership."
Mocking the powerful is as old as Ben Franklin. A JFK impersonator won a Grammy in 1963 for satirizing the Kennedys. By the late 1970s, SNL became political satire's defining institution.
Chevy Chase made Gerald Ford a klutz. Dana Carvey parodied George Bush as the wimpy, "wouldn't be prudent" president. Phil Hartman nailed Clinton as the fast food president in his McDonalds skit, cheapening Clinton as a man after the easy pleasures. Just last year, Tina Fey devastated Sarah Palin as a silly, high school cheerleading airhead.
It was supposed to be hard to joke about Obama. White liberal comics were afraid to touch on race. Obama came to office in serious times. But it was also Obama's image. He ran on a lofty persona unlike any candidate since Reagan. But in the case of Obama, the liberal pop culture was buying and selling it. Obama was to bring, "change, we can believe in."
But the change maker has not made change--at least not on the hard fights, not yet. Hillary Clinton once asked why Obama "can't close the deal." Her dig is now a punch line. And most people get the joke, except CNN.
This week CNN actually ran a segment fact checking the Obama SNL skit. Bush and Palin may have wondered why CNN never came to their defense. But then, where's the humor in that?
As Garry Trudeau, of "Doonesbury" fame, told one reporter, "For something to be funny, the audience has to be in a position to sense the truth of it." And SNL's lampoon of Obama was funny.