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Barack Obama: Presidential Ironist

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Ignore the way too loud guffaws. the turd-rate celebs in the audience, and the point that if a Republican made jokes that hover this close to actually being biting it’d be a national disaster, and the annual “President gets to act wacky” Correspondence Dinner is something of a tour de force of Presidential poise.

In this stand-up routine whatever whatever, Obama has the odd but ideal balance of doing a stupid thing all the Presidents have to do (“just one more problem that I’ve inherited from George Bush”) and hamming it up good and proper while maintaining a certain air of “I know this is stupid”. Not an air of dignity, although there’s some of that too, just in 2009, dignity isn’t much of a trait to grab for–irony however is, and Obama treats the whole thing with a smarmy but never snobby distance.

There are hints of this before, like when the big historical swearing-in stumbled for a second–the fault of Chief Justice Roberts–and Obama smirked, not out of frustration or concern for his image but more like “I just screwed-up the oath and that’s kind of funny and will be talked-about even though it doesn’t really matter.” Or when he’s circled by reporters as he walks the family’s dog and there’s this ineffable grin on his face and he answers reporters kindly and casually and seems to get-off on derailing the event by expounding on his answers beyond what they’re expecting–like a wizened suburbanite forced to make small-talk with a vaguely obnoxious neighbor but being cool with it.

While these little details hardly matter resting next to the big problems the United States and the world must confront, they’re a great way of unpacking why Obama’s fascinating in a positive way–not fascinating/baffling like Bush–and why/how Obama enlists hope for the country in a way that at least seems fresh.

It’s not because he’s conventionally “eloquent”, but because he’s comfortable not always being eloquent and so, he’s a quick on his feet speaker who’s embraced the wandering, qualifying nature of his thoughts instead of denying them. It isn’t that he’s this impossibly confident dude, it’s that he’s smart enough not fall apart or hyper-compensate when he isn’t confident. In short, his actions are dominated by irony, but not the irony of rooted in cynicism (like most Democrats) or nihilism (like many Republicans), but a healthy self-aware kind of irony that if you don’t possess in 2009, you’re kind of weird anyways.

And so, the joy of watching the Correspondents’ Dinner was not that Obama was hilarious or hip–he was relatively hilarious and hip–but that he found a way to make a really stupid tradition made so that the President looks “cool” into something where he actually looked cool and sort of made fun of the event at the same time. There’s a big mess of hacky jokes, weird kinda truths, actually funny jokes (“fresh young faces like Arlen Specter”) and it’s just plain old bizarre too watch in a good way.

The opening joke where he thanks all of the correspondents (“most of you voted for me”) is not only a quip, but an aggressive statement of fact (they did) and a parody of the Left-Wing conspiracy junk that’s building and building by Limbaugh types–who now has an official Dick Cheney co-sign by the way. The jokes were not only a mix of self-deprecation and cross-party jibes, but some like double-edged critiques that had a touch of actual anger to them which Obama sold by grinning like “I’m getting away with this” and then following it up with a corny joke about his kids taking Air Force One out for a joyride and the status quo’s back to being maintained. This is how things are accomplished or approach being accomplished: The balance between doing what you want and doing what you’re supposed to do, whether entertaining an audience or running a country.

Written by Brandon

May 12th, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Barack Obama

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