Let’s undermine dignity

Handwringing over the nature of Obama’s outreach efforts misses the point.

Updated: March 20, 2014 11:55 pm

Handwringing over the nature of Obama’s outreach efforts misses the point.

Last week, US President Barack Obama took the unprecedented step of making a surprise appearance on actor Zach Galifianakis’s Funny or Die show, the satirical Between Two Ferns, to trumpet the features of his signature healthcare act for the benefit of younger voters. The central joke of the online-only show is Galifianakis’s incompetence as an interviewer, and while many bemoaned the quality of the comedy on offer, as presidents are not generally heralded for their comedic skills, some rather humourlessly accused their president of undermining the dignity of his office.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly reached for a historical parallel, arguing that “Abe Lincoln” would never have done a web video, while talk radio counterpart Rush Limbaugh predictably called it “devastating to the office”. Less predictable was ABC correspondent Jim Avila’s handwringing, which prompted him to ask Press Secretary Jay Carney during a White House briefing if he thought Obama had damaged the office. Carney’s answer: no.

Obama seems to have rebounded from the criticism by, well, making his first appearance on the more mainstream Ellen DeGeneres Show. But the worried harrumphing over an elected public official attempting to use new media to reach a section of his constituents is odd, to say the least. Is it that Obama is allowed to trade in-jokes and one-liners only at elite gatherings of journalists once a year in Washington DC? Why shouldn’t the president — or any other public official, for that matter — attempt to court support and popularity by looking like just one of the folks?

Indian political leaders could take a page out of Obama’s playbook — his attempt to woo younger voters resulted in a 40 per cent increase in traffic to healthcare.gov. In an election campaign thus far largely devoid of mirth, the political comedy has come mostly at the expense of politicians. But they could, instead, strike a more self-deprecatory note and, like Obama, get in on the joke — rusty as they are, that would run the risk only of undermining the dignity of Indian comedy.

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