Sense of humor could hurt Obama

/ Source: National Journal

Put me down as one of those people who think the New Yorker magazine cover is hurting Barack Obama. But not for the reasons that have been widely, and wildly, articulated this week. The satirical cartoon probably won't give one swing voter second thoughts about the Obamas or the Illinois senator's presidential campaign. But his supporters' reaction to it could.

(Forgive me for weighing in at this late juncture on such a well-worn topic of debate among bloggers, cable talkers and the guy behind you in the grocery store checkout line. Such are the perils of a weekly column. I promise to try to break new ground.)

Taking cues from the casual wince Obama offered Sunday when he first learned that a satirical piece of art would force its way into his mental space this week, his campaign aides and supporters sped from 0 to 60 and ended up, somewhat reflexively, in an increasingly familiar place: outrage. The "tasteless and offensive" drawing would only reinforce the inaccurate image of the Obamas, they said. "A pathetic, appalling display," shuddered one. "A jarring sign of the desperate measures some in the print media will now go to attract readers," scolded another.

They ultimately accepted the cartoon as satire ("Stephen Colbert in print," explained New Yorker editor David Remnick). But they fumed that such irony, while appreciated and understood by the well-heeled literati in Manhattan and political intelligentsia in Dupont Circle, would be lost on that all-important "average voter." Especially those, it seems, in flyover states.

"When you consider that a portion of this country, particularly in Midwestern and Rust Belt states, still ... wrongly believe that [Obama] may be a Muslim, and they equate that with terrorist activity, it's puzzling," Democratic Leadership Council Chairman Harold Ford Jr. said Monday on NBC's "Today."

Hold it. Voters in Midwestern and Rust Belt states, among others, are plenty familiar with the concepts of irony and satire. They rarely confuse it with truth or fact. They get it. They don't need subtitles or flow charts.

They're also familiar with the casual air of condescension that often emanates from the country's political and media class. And when they start to think that a presidential candidate, or his party, is putting on those airs, they run from him in droves. Just ask Al Gore or John Kerry.

"Someone needs to explain satire to the senator and inform him that the cover might actually do him more political good than harm. Obama and his campaign are far too sensitive," the Tulsa World, hardly a bastion of elitism, opined Tuesday. "The best thing he could have done was laughed, pointed out that this country is based on free speech, even if he doesn't agree with what's being said, and moved on. The overreaction is giving legs to something that should not have them."

None of this is meant to condone the ludicrous rumors about Obama. And the magazine did cross a line by portraying Michelle Obama, whose own political philosophy remains largely unknown, as some sort of modern-day Angela Davis.

But the candidate is being ill-served by surrogates and supporters who believe that a magazine's attempt at satire could fuel wild misconceptions among uninformed voters. Indeed, they might want to soften their outrage. If they hope to help Obama make inroads with those "bitter," gun-clinging voters in key battleground states, they should take a minute to reconsider their own misperceptions of them.

Many of these voters remain open to Obama. Recent polls show him leading John McCain in red states like Indiana and Colorado. And his top-dollar campaign is expected to compete aggressively in low-cost rural states like Montana and the Dakotas. But if voters there think the Democrat doesn't understand them or views them as too uninformed to appreciate high-minded satire from the media elite, no amount of money can win them back.

There's another reason the response could backfire. Obama's at risk of falling into the same personality straitjacket that, rightly or wrongly, bound Gore and Kerry as humor-challenged, stiff and incapable of self-mockery. Say what you want about hanging chads in Florida or uncounted ballots in Ohio. George W. Bush never would have been president if more voters had believed Gore and Kerry had a sense of humor.

"What's so funny about Barack Obama?" asked the New York Times' Bill Carter this week. "Apparently not very much, at least not yet."

After two days of talking about a cartoon almost as much as he was discussing Afghanistan, Obama seemed eager to dial down his campaign's response. "I've seen and heard worse," he shrugged Tuesday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."