For all of the nonchalant assurances that he is neither a “dictator” nor an “emperor,” Barack Obama is certainly trigger-happy with the power jokes.
The president’s latest witticism was inspired by his much-debated appearance on Between Two Ferns, during which he traded carefully scripted barbs with actor Zach Galifianakis. “Zach actually was pretty nervous,” Obama explained to Ryan Seacrest in a postmortem interview. “His whole character is to go after the guest, and I think he was looking around and seeing all these Secret Service guys with guns and thinking, I wonder what happens here if I cross the line? But we had a great time.”
And who could forget the all-time classic, told without any sense of irony at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, as the president and his guest viewed the garden from a private balcony:
The commander-in-chief on Monday boasted of how, as president, “I can do whatever I want.”
The joke in each case is simple and similar: I’m more powerful than you, and, if I want to, I can kill you. Is it funny? Occasionally, if the atmosphere in the room is right and if one buys sufficiently into the conceit. Is it healthy that it’s funny? Not really, no. Years before the Tea Party had attracted the attention of the IRS, Obama liked to joke about auditing his enemies. At Arizona State University, the president lamented that the college had refused to award him an honorary degree. “I do think we all learned an important lesson,” Obama told the crowd. “I learned never again to pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA brackets,” and “President Crowe and the Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.”
This ostensibly innocuous crack prompted Glenn Reynolds to risk the damning charge of humorlessness, a charge he delivered in the pages of the Wall Street Journal with an astonishingly prescient warning:
Just a joke about the power of the presidency. Made by Jay Leno it might have been funny. But as told by Mr. Obama, the actual president of the United States, it’s hard to see the humor. Surely he’s aware that other presidents, most notably Richard Nixon, have abused the power of the Internal Revenue Service to harass their political opponents.
Intent matters, certainly. Only the most fevered and unhinged of Obama’s critics believe that he is likely to drone entertainers who irritate his family or that he will use his armed guards to silence the slings and arrows of America’s complaisant acting class. Clearly, Galifianakis, a progressive Democrat, wasn’t in fear for his life. But, as Reynolds establishes well, the virtue of any joke is heavily contingent upon who is making it. Those of us who wince at such would-be witticisms are not against Obama making jokes per se, nor are we hooked on abstract notions relating to the “dignity of the office.” Quite the opposite. We think that the imperial presidency isn’t funny, and that joking about lethal power is unbecoming. Where, pray, is the humor in “I can kill you with the Secret Service”?
Excoriating Obama for making light of civilian casualties, Salon’s Alex Pareene suggested that “the people directly responsible for tragedies should not deliver jokes about those tragedies.” “That’s why Mel Brooks can tell Hitler jokes and Germans can’t,” Pareene concluded. Indeed. The executive branch has reserved the right to murder literally anybody whom it regards as a threat anywhere in the world. If Americans who are alarmed by this have the chutzpah to crack a joke about it, it might be amusing; it’s not so funny when the guy with his finger on the button does it.
Of all of the troubles facing the republic, this habit is among the least pressing. Nevertheless, it is instructive — and not only for what it teaches us about power and the people. Five years into his tenure, Obama and his acolytes are still exhibiting a vexing cognitive dissonance and a crippling insecurity, apparently unable to decide whether the president is a plucky outsider sticking it to the Man or an elected emperor whose word should be respected above all others. Sometimes, Obama explains his governing philosophy in brutal, appeal-to-power terms: “I won,” he told a Republican dissenter in 2009. (This is a line that he and his troops have deployed in a thousand different incarnations since 2012.) On other occasions, he lauds the likes of actor Harold Ramis, because, the president gushes, he forced his viewers to “question authority,” “identify with the outsider,” and “root for the underdog.”
With this in mind, the Between Two Ferns episode was moderately funny and extremely illuminating, encapsulating the schizophrenia that has marked this administration from the outset. Desperate for enrollees in the dying days of his signature law’s embarrassingly dramatic rollout, the most powerful man in the world was reduced to throwing himself upon the mercy of a comedian in order to make his pitch — his introduction a torrent of mockery in place of the more familiar Hail to the Chief; his backdrop, a modest black cloth. Subtly aware of the indignities of having to beg, and typically incapable of being the butt of a joke for more than a few minutes, Obama couldn’t quite help himself from rebalancing the stakes, letting us all know after the fact that, if he had so wished, he could have sent his recalcitrant, profanatory host to the guillotine.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.