Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Obama has weaponized wit

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 8:21 PM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
Pres. Obama winks as he tells a joke about his place of birth during the 2012 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.
Pres. Obama winks as he tells a joke about his place of birth during the 2012 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah says Obama uses jokes like many comedians do: as weapons
  • He says presidents often make self-deprecating jokes, but Obama's can be barbed, too
  • He says Obama has aimed at Trump, Romney, Damon like a comic leveling a heckler
  • Obeidallah: Style draws from Jon Stewart, which educates, eviscerates

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-director of the upcoming documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- Barack Obama would make a great stand-up comic, not because he's the funniest president ever but because he uses jokes the same way many of us comedians do: as a weapon.

Traditionally, the (intentionally) funny lines by our presidents have had one thing in common: They were self-deprecating. Sure, some presidents have used jokes to take jabs at their opponents, but not to the extent of Obama.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

During his tenure, he has increasingly unleashed biting comedic barbs against his critics and political adversaries. These jokes are intended to do more than simply entertain you. They have an agenda.

Obama's humor is often delivered the way a comedian dealing with a heckler would do it. He tries to undermine his opponents with it and get the crowd -- in this case the public -- on his side. I can assure you that having a crowd laugh at your critic/heckler is not only effective in dominating them, it's also very satisfying.

Let's look at some of the more typical self-deprecating jokes made by presidents at past White House Correspondents' Dinners, where press and president unleash their biting wits on one another. In 1988, Ronald Reagan joked about his advanced age by commenting that his staff had claimed that "preparing me for a press conference was like reinventing the wheel. Not true. I was around when the wheel was invented, and it was easier."

President Clinton, at the 2000 Correspondents' Dinner, mentioned that he was a fan of that night's comedian, Jay Leno: "Because, together, we give hope to gray-haired, chunky baby boomers everywhere."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And then there was President George W. Bush. There are no words to describe my gratitude for all the material he provided comedians. But he could also be intentionally funny at his own expense.

Gallery: President Obama: A year in facial expressions

At the 2001 Correspondents' Dinner, Bush took out a book written about his verbal gaffes and reviewed them with the audience. One of the funniest moments was regarding his famous grammatically incorrect line "Rarely is the question asked: 'Is our children learning?' " Bush then comically explained, "If they would read it closely, they would see I'm using the transitive plural tense, so the word 'is' are correct."

Now, let's look at Obama. Yes, he has often used self-deprecating humor.

Obama, Kimmel deliver on dinner jokes
2011: Obama laughs off Osama joke
2006: Bush and impersonator crack jokes
2006: Colbert rips Bush, Washington

For example, at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, he joked, "Some people now suggest that I'm too professorial. And I'd like to address that head-on by assigning all of you some reading that will help you draw your own conclusions."

But here's where Obama has increasingly taken presidential comedy to a new place. At that same event, Obama took on two critics point-blank, using cutting humor. The first was the thin-skinned Donald Trump, who at that time was considering running for president against Obama in 2012.

Obama made three sharply barbed jokes at Trump's expense. One was about how trivial Trump's decisions on "The Apprentice" were when compared with that of the POTUS. The second ridiculed Trump for what he would allegedly do to the White House if he won: turn it into a garish-looking hotel and spa.

And Obama mocked Trump's obsession with the "birther" issue by joking that, next, "The Donald" would focus on topics like "Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?"

Obama then took on actor Matt Damon, who had been publicly critical of the president. Obama quipped, "Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw 'The Adjustment Bureau,' so right back atcha, buddy."

At the 2012 Correspondents' Dinner, Obama took on his then-opponent Mitt Romney: "I guess Gov. Romney is feeling pretty good about things, because he took a few hours off the other day to see 'The Hunger Games.' ... It's a movie about people who court wealthy sponsors and then brutally savage each other until only one contestant is left standing. I'm sure this was a really good change of pace for him."

Gallery: Obama's face all over the place

And then at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner in New York a few weeks before the most recent presidential election, Obama mocked Romney again: "Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Gov. Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown."

And we even saw it on display again this week when Obama joked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he was happy to be in the Middle East because it's, "good to get away from Congress." Clearly, Republican House Speaker John Boehner understood who Obama was targeting with this joke, telling CNN's Jake Tapper, "I'd rather be heckled than ignored."

You can dismiss these as simply jokes, but then you aren't grasping how political comedy works. These jokes are funny but also have a message embedded within. For example, the jokes about Romney intentionally furthered the image Obama wanted to paint of Mitt, namely that he was very wealthy and out of touch with the average person.

The change in presidential humor, I believe, can be traced to the influence of "The Daily Show." Since 1999, Jon Stewart has redefined political comedy, using it to entertain, educate and eviscerate. Obama and his joke-writers have simply embraced this style of political comedy to comically undermine critics.

Like it or not, those seeking the presidency in 2016 better do more than build a network of fundraisers and supporters. You'd better work on your comedic barbs, because American politics is becoming the country's toughest room to play.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT