A president is accused (yawn) of demeaning his office (yawn)

    Wow, big surprise. The usual suspects are incensed that President Obama plugged the health reform law during a deadpan-humor gig on Zach Galifianakis’ web show, Between Two Ferns.

    He demeaned his office! He humiliated our nation and comforted our enemies!

    If the Fox News fulminators are right, I guess we can expect Vladimir Putin to invade Canada by week’s end – because Obama must surely be a national security softie if he’s willing to trade mock-insults with a mock-clueless interviewer. (Zach: “What’s it like to be the last black president?” Guest: “What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?”) Apparently the Obama-haters are so humorless that they couldn’t even laugh when Zach identified Obama on-screen as a “community organizer,” or when he asked Obama if the presidential library was going to be built in Kenya.

    “So the world is on the verge of mayhem,” said one Fox talking head, “and what is the leader of the free world doing?” Other Foxheads called the gig “100 percent inappropriate” and “tragic.” A conservative commentator tweeted that Obama’s appearance on the web show is proof that “news is doomed.”

    Bill O’Reilly has been particularly steamed. (Or maybe he’s just mock-steamed, mindful that he’s marketing himself to aging white people, to what Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has called the network’s “55-to-dead” demographic.) O’Reilly huffed that an august figure like Abraham Lincoln would never gig for Zach Galifianikis, which is true enough, since Abe died 130 years before the popularization of the Internet.

    What O’Reilly forgets, of course, is that Abe in his time was reputedly far more of a public jokester than Obama is today. Back in the 1860s, he was widely assailed – this will sound familar – for demeaning the office of the presidency. A skilled communicator, he often lightened his conversation with ribald frontier humor, at least among male listeners. The Abe-haters were scandalized. This was one of his jokes (few have survived): “Why is a woman like a barrel? Because you have to raise the hoops before you put the head in.”

    But the Obama critics’ real problem is not their impaired sense of humor; it’s their dearth of historical perspective. Every time a president has expanded his communicative tools, he has been assailed for demeaning his office.

    Martin Van Buren was rebuked for campaigning among the voters in 1840, because it was previously deemed undignified for an incumbent to leave his house. When Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his Fireside Chats, on a medium dominated by Bing Crosby and Jack Benny, his critics said he had reduced the presidency to “show biz.” When Jimmy Carter starred in a “Dial-a-President” radio call-in show – this was in 1977, with Walter Cronkite as moderator – his critics said that a commander-in-chief should never sully his lordly standing in that fashion.

    One of Carter’s critics was Richard Stout, a commentator at the liberal New Republic magazine He said that a president should never “dilute” or “trivialize” his office – as Carter had apparently done. He said, “There is a line between informality and showmanship, and I think the call-in caper is perilously close to the line.”

    Fast forward 37 years, and here’s Shira T. Center, politics editor of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, lamenting Obama’s web gig: “(A president shouldn’t) cross the line of kind of demoting the office to an unserious nature…this very appearance goes right up to that line, maybe dances on it, tiptoes on it…”

    Point is, the line moves with the times. Presidents need to reach Americans where they live. This is not rocket science. Obama is trying to list more young signees for Obamacare, so he puts himself on a show that young people watch. The results so far: 12 million views (as of noon yesterday), and a 40 percent traffic boost on healthcare.gov.

    I even suspect that Obama’s critics on the right are jealous that this president knows how to reach the 18-to-34 cohort, since they apparently don’t have a clue. Indeed, if Republicans hope to recapture the presidency any time soon, and reverse their sorry track record of losing the popular vote in five of the last six elections, they might want to go to school on the Obama media strategy.

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    Postscript: There are far worse ways to demean the presidency than gigging on Between Two Ferns. This, for instance. Declaring victory with 99 percent of the U.S. deaths still to come.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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