Was that a weird juxtaposition? We must admit it seemed a little awkward to us.
First, the funny stuff. Mr. Obama was the first sitting president to make an in-studio guest appearance on a late night talk show, according to Variety, and his experience is starting to show. He’s polished the slightly hesitant, stiff delivery into an actual comic persona. It seems arch and a little self-knowing, as if he’s giving an imitation of himself delivering jokes in front of a law seminar.
Or something like that.
This may have come across best during Mr. Kimmel’s signature “mean tweets” bit. Obama read supposedly critical tweets about himself on air – a method meant to defuse the sting and “show presidents are people too,” according to the host.
We say supposedly mean because they were pretty mild as insults go. By the standards of Twitter they were practically compliments. Most of the ones we get include “Nazi” and “moron” in some combination.
For instance, Obama read this one, from @RWSurfer girl: “Is there anyway we could fly Obama to a golf course halfway around the world and leave him there?”
“Sounds good to me,” the president said in response.
Then he read “How do you make Obama’s eyes light up? Shine a flashlight in his ears.”
This one caused Obama himself to kind of laugh out loud. “That’s pretty good,” he said.
He ended up by lecturing one critic that using “lol” in a tweet that includes “ha ha” is redundant. See what we mean about the law professor shtick?
At other points Kimmel and Obama discussed whether he could do something to shorten CVS receipts – a long-standing Kimmel bête noir. Kimmel opined that if he became president the first thing he’d do was look at all the secret UFO and Area 51files.
“That’s why you will not be president,” Obama said.
Kimmel asked Obama if he didn’t drive because nobody could find his birth certificate. (He was kidding.) He asked if Obama ever walked to the White House kitchen in his underwear.
“I could, but I don’t,” said Obama.
Obama may not be the first president to really engage in this kind of banter on a regular basis but he has certainly popularized it via a regular round of spots on Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and other shows, as well as more specialized outlets such as GloZell the YouTube comedian. In that sense, he’s carried out a public relations strategy that’s thoroughly modern in its emphasis on nontraditional outlets and the need for presidents to appear approachable and regular people.
But the job of president is a weird one. It includes the need to try and portray oneself as relatable and official at the same time. A US chief executive day can jump from pardoning a turkey to a meeting on anti-terror strategy; from meeting the Easter Bunny to reacting to serious and tragic national events.
Thus, Ferguson. Kimmel brought that up and Obama gave his first extended remarks on the shooting of two law enforcement officers this week in a community roiled by the death at police hands of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.
His message appeared to have two, balancing parts: The violence is unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean Ferguson’s racial problems weren’t, and aren’t, real.
“What had been happening in Ferguson was oppressive and objectionable and was worthy of protest,” he said. “But there was no excuse for criminal acts.”
The switch between that seriousness and jokes seemed jarring, despite commercial breaks. Conservative critics said it was unseemly. The right-leaning Twitchy site said the president was “slammed for using Kimmel’s ‘comedy platform’ to discuss such a weighty topic.”
But that kind of thing will only become more common as future presidents duplicate the Obama team’s media strategy – and they’re likely to, whatever party they’re from.