Comics find president's soft spot
Comedy relies on surprise. "Saturday Night Live" has felt painfully dull this season without Sarah Palin to kick around or Tina Fey to do the kicking. Then it surprised the world this weekend. It kicked President Barack Obama. Even more surprising, it got away with it.
Only a few months ago major comedians like Jon Stewart and Will Ferrell were lamenting with slack-jawed remorse how resilient Obama has proved to ridicule. How the comics missed the target-rich environments offered up by his predecessors.
Even the gifted Fred Armisen, who could pull off an Obama imitation almost good enough to fool the Secret Service, found jokes at Obama's expense fell flat. Audiences treated the man Oprah Winfrey famously pronounced "The One" as though he were a bank too big to fail, a balloon of hope too big to be punctured.
But that appears to have ended after Obama's failed attempt to help Chicago win its bid to host to 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Like one of those Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloons that had snagged on a tree, Obama's balloon of hope fizzled to earth.
It had to happen sooner or later. Armisen found Obama's comedic vulnerability not on his right, where he is predictably pummeled by certain pundits, but on his left, where supporters tend to muzzle themselves in defensive solidarity, even when they are unhappy.
In a mock presidential address to the nation, Armisen as Obama assures angry conservatives that they have nothing to worry about. "Because when you look at my record," he declares, "it is very clear what I have done so far -- and that is nothing. Nada! Almost one year and nothing to show for it!"
Armisen's Obama then checks off a laundry list of what he has not done: "Close (the prison at) Guantanamo Bay ... Out of Iraq ... Improve Afghanistan ... Health care reform...." "No," "no, "worse" and "Hell, no," are the assessments of each.
And what about the left? "They're the ones who should be mad," he says, offering another checklist: "Global warming ... immigration reform ... gays in the military ... limits on executive power ... torture prosecutions." Here again, the answer was no to each.
As caricature, Armisen's skit passed the first test of comedy: it was funny. But was it true? Was it fact-based? And did it make a point worth making? There's a thin line between truth and a cheap shot, especially in politics where the line is always moving, depending on your audience.
Fact checkers give Armisen's checklist a mixed grade. Guantanamo is "stalled," for example, and Iraq and health care are works in progress, according to Politifact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonpartisan fact-checking Web site. Afghanistan has gotten measurably worse, but Politifact gave Obama credit for living up to his promise to send in two more brigades.
Politifact, operated by the St. Petersburg Times, monitors 500 promises Obama made as a candidate. So far, by their count he has accomplished 47 and compromised on a dozen more.
After his first nine months, it is hard to call him a slacker. But Team Obama can't afford to be too sanguine about facts. If there was a point the "SNL" skit makes it is how politics is based less on facts than perceptions. "SNL" often has signaled changes in public perceptions and created a few of its own.
"SNL" has a 30-plus history of redefining public perceptions of presidents and candidates, from Chevy Chase's bumbling klutz of a Gerald Ford and Al Franken's monotone-speaking Paul Simon (the late Illinois Democratic senator, not the singer) to Will Ferrell's "strategery"-planning George W. Bush and Amy Poehler's frighteningly ambitious Hillary Clinton.
"SNL's" message reveals, among other subtle insights, a repressed discontent on the left. They see a center-left president who often seems more concerned with the art of compromise on issues like health care, or inclined to put off issues like global warming and gays in the military, than with standing up for his core beliefs.
Obama came into office tackling two wars, a world economic crisis and an overhaul of the nation's health care system, just for starters. He has a lot that he's trying to do. Even so, SNL reminds the president, as he pursues what he's trying to do, that sometimes he needs to remind us of what he's done.