President Barack Obama made headlines Tuesday when he appeared for a short mock interview on comedian Zach Galifianakis’ web series “Between Two Ferns,” taking the opportunity to promote the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, the health care law that was the signature legislative accomplishment of his first term.
Both Obama and Galifianakis took joking shots at each other, with Obama comparing a third term to a third Hangover movie that “didn’t really work out that well.” Galifianakis teased Obama about his birth certificate and asked if his son would have been a “nerd” like him. The interview then took a more serious note as Obama talked about the new health care website, healthcare.gov, and jokingly suggested that Galifianakis enroll in order to get his “spider bites” checked out.
The move sparked some controversy, particularly among members conservative news media who claimed the interview was undignified for the President of the United States. In the segment Fox and Friends, anchors Elisabeth Hasselback and Brian Kilmeade referred to the move as “inappropriate” and “pretty tragic” while conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly said the move was “desperate” and that “Abe Lincoln would not have done it.”
But did the move really tarnish the office of the President, or is Obama simply adapting to the sweeping changes in media? In other words: Are conservatives angry at what Obama did, or angry that his words seemed to have an impact?
Since the implementation of the health care law, millions of Americans have enrolled in or switched to new health insurance plans. The interview was part of a larger campaign to increase the percentage of young people, age 18-34, enrolling in health insurance plans. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the the video had reached nearly 8 million views by 8 p.m. Tuesday and that by 6 p.m. 32,000 people had reached the healthcare portal via Funny or Die.
Appropriateness aside, it’s pretty clear that the move was effective PR, generating both awareness and site traffic from the target audience.
With the increasing fragmentation of the media market, it is extremely difficult to reach audiences through traditional means. News is increasingly disseminated through digital platforms and shared through social media rather than print, radio or television. A story is only breaking if it goes viral. Aware of this power, and the popularity of Galifianakis’ show, Obama seemingly made a calculated appearance to engage young people through a platform they could relate to.
Why, then, was this something not worthy of Abe Lincoln, as O’Reilly suggests? It becomes a question of whether the issue was his advocacy for the legislation, the fact that he gave an interview, or just criticism his comedic attempts.
Theodore Roosevelt famously coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the ability of the President to use the power of his office to advocate for an agenda, something Obama explicitly states in his appearance. Even Galifianakis concedes this saying, “Let’s get this out of the way, what did you come here to plug?” Obama then launched into an appeal to young Americans to get coverage. Whether or not Obama will pursue a career in comedy after his term expires remains to be seen, but the prime motivation of his appearance was to advance his political agenda, an established and legitimate use of his office.
President Obama has also appeared on Mr. O’Reilly’s own show, to give an interview on Superbowl Sunday, as well as the popular satirical news show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In addition, a long standing DC tradition is the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, a comedy night where celebrities like Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert have performed alongside the President.
Conservatives do not seem to mind the President telling jokes or giving interviews when it suits them, and he can hardly be expected to keep quiet about his own legislation. The logical conclusion is that they are simply angry about what he is saying, not how he is saying it. The only thing the administration is guilty of is good marketing. Conservatives should take notes, not critique.
Anshu Siripurapu is a sophomore majoring in political economy.