The Congressional Budget Office can’t entertain us every day, so the website Funny or Die filled the vacuum on Tuesday with an episode of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis with President Barack Obama as a guest. Obama dropped in on the talk-show parody to promote the Affordable Care Act and HealthCare.gov, which promises to guide users through the process of signing up for health insurance. (Galifianakis: “Oh, yeah, that’s the thing that doesn’t work.” Obama: HealthCare.gov works great now.”)
The goal is to get more young people to sign up for “Obamacare,” so the White House won’t care that whichever pieces of the seven-minute interview end up on TV will perplex a lot of older voters.
“Where do you plan on building your presidential library, in Hawaii or your home country of Kenya?” asks Galifiankis of a faux-irritated Obama. Unlike Stephen Colbert, the ostentatiously ill-informed Galifiankis is not likely to be mistaken for a genuine conservative.
If I were tasked with making Obama look bad, I’d pull out his reply to the host’s desire to have First Lady Michelle Obama on his show: “I’m not going to let her near you.” A lot of women would not be pleased if Mitt Romney spoke for his wife that way, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Michelle did end up on Two Ferns to joke about defying her husband — and to lecture Galifiankis, who admits to “smelling like Doritos,” in regard to his eating habits.
Conservatives may not be amused by the president’s appearance on what the skittish New York Times calls an “off-color” series. But the Atlantic’s David A. Graham writes, "Part of the president’s job is to communicate." Graham argues that Obama is merely keeping up with the tools available to him: "complaining that Obama spends more time on internet video than his predecessors is a little like complaining that Calvin Coolidge spent more time on radio addresses that Warren Harding."
Graham also links to one of those conservative critics, Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon, who finds it most unseemly for a comedian to allow a president to come out on top:
The Obama interview, however, was just dreadful. After a few semi-unbearable moments during which the president shows he doesn’t at all understand the point of the show — the guest is not supposed to get in good zingers; he’s supposed to be taken down a peg —there’s an utterly unbearable moment during which he hawks the failed social experiment that is HealthCare.gov. It’s just gross.
Nothing screams “brave, edgy comedy!” like “I’m here to let The Man sell you on health insurance!”
Bunch should get used to it. A little self-deprecation has been required of presidents ever since FDR started doing fireside chats. Now that we know too much about the process of building and maintaining a politician’s image (Graham notes the irony of the Two Ferns video coming out on the same day as the obituary for Joe McGinniss, author of The Selling of the President), media-savvy voters also like some irony and self-reflexive humor from political leaders. Two Ferns ends with Obama impulsively pushing a big red button, mocking what used to be the deadly serious question of presidential campaign journalism: “Whose finger do you trust on the nuclear button?” Now the question is, “Who takes himself, or herself, too seriously to joke about pushing that button?” Anyone who fits that description is likely to be eliminated from consideration pretty quickly.
Top image from FunnyOrDie.com. Bottom image from YouTube video of then-President Ronald Reagan's appearance at a Bob Hope show at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. Hope asked why First Lady Nancy Reagan didn't come, and Reagan responded, "I was going to ask her, but I was afraid she'd 'just say no."