By Mina Shah
As we quickly approach the last quarter of Barack Obama’s second term as President, the time has come to evaluate the work that he’s done in the Oval Office. He’s had quite the run. He helped the country come back to a point of relative economic stability in the aftermath of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. He passed healthcare reform that allows everyone in the nation to acquire health insurance. The war in Iraq came to an end under Obama’s direction. We came to an agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program. On top of all his action in office, he will be immortalized for being our country’s first Black president.
Beyond all of this, though, Obama has revolutionized presidential outreach. He is the first president to make so many active efforts to connect to young voters through different platforms. One of his most effective methods of connecting with youth and the public has been through his various comedic appearances. He has done this both in formal avenues where we would expect comedy, such as his appearance on The Colbert Report, and those that have caught us by pleasant surprise, such as his performance at the Correspondents’ Dinner, both in his individual portion and one with Keegan-Michael Key of “Key and Peele” as Luther, Obama’s “anger translator.” He has also appeared on Zach Galifinakis’ YouTube show, “Between Two Ferns.”
To some, this engagement may seem unprofessional. What is our Commander in Chief doing wasting his time in entertainment? Journalists at Fox News complain that he’s leaving behind a long list of unfinished tasks that consist of a mess of problems. Others are confused as to why Obama is doing comedy routines when there are so many pressing issues at hand, both internationally with ISIS and nuclear talks with Iran, and especially domestically, with the peaceful protests intermixed with episodes of rioting and looting in Baltimore.
By engaging with the media in this way, though, the President is doing something extremely important. He’s reaching people. Especially young people. One of the biggest complaints about our generation (maybe less so following the activism that has been sweeping college campuses this past year, but I’m sure most of us have heard this at one point or another) is that we young Americans are too apolitical. I consider myself a political activist and have been involved with a few movements on and off campus, but I understand the desire to be disengaged from the political system. It’s frustrating and, quite frankly, exhausting.
Obama’s presentation of political, economic, and social issues through these avenues make them more palatable. It’s much easier to think about political gridlock or people being difficult in negotiations if the President himself is able to find humor in the irony of the situation. He’s reached us in each of the aforementioned appearances with regard to topics like the Affordable Healthcare Act, the complementary website, the economy, international relations, and the national bipartisan relationship. If we have a method of looking at current events that makes them more digestible, it is more likely that we will be invested in knowing what’s happening in the world.
Additionally, viewers must actually know what’s going on in the world to get some of the jokes. When these videos go viral, it’s embarrassing to be left on the outside of the joke, so it encourages people to learn about the events referenced in the videos in order to understand the social phenomenon and feel the authentic joy of experiencing and understanding the joke. Though this seems like an almost subversive way to get people to engage with politics, the fact is that this engagement will be better than no engagement whatsoever.
Politics packaged with humor allow informed viewers to kill two birds with one stone; we become more aware of what’s happening in the world around us and are entertained at the same time. This makes things more efficient for us, which is especially important when we have eighteen hundred million other things going on at the same time.
Ultimately, though, an engagement with comedy is a brilliant political strategy on Obama’s part. His moments of self-deprecation, in particular, demonstrate that while he is a strong leader, he doesn’t think of himself as some sort of demigod. Reaching out in this way also shows young voters and comedy-lovers that the President cares about all of his constituents, even those who aren’t actively interested in politics. And isn’t that exactly what the President is supposed to do?
Candidates for 2016 better know what they’re signing up for when the run for this prestigious office. They’ve got a lot of work in the government ahead, sure, but they also have a lot of outreach and laughs to live up to.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.