YAHANDA: Jester-in-chief

Presidents should make tactful use of talk and comedy shows that have a large youth following

With so much gridlock in Washington, it seems like politicians should be scrambling to find the most effective means by which they can promote a goal or message. When traditional commercials, press releases and stops on mainstream news channels fall short, making slightly offbeat media appearances presents an enticing option. That said, when the President of the United States himself appears on a small-time Internet comedy show, his decision will generate some questions and controversy, even if doing so is actually a viable means to publicize an important issue in which he believes.

For many, President Obama’s recent guest appearance on comedian Zach Galifianakis’ web show “Between Two Ferns” was a shock, and understandably. Until this point, Galifianakis had interviewed celebrities for nothing but humorous purposes, doing his best to ensure intentionally awkward experiences. Obama, however, appeared on the show to promote the Affordable Care Act (ACA) before its March 31 signup deadline. He has also been appearing on other non-news outlets for the same purpose: recently he was featured on both ESPN Radio and “Ellen.”

Politics aside, I don’t want to see every YouTube channel and talk show being inundated with politicians seeking to promote both themselves and their objectives. Political happenings and developments are important events about which people should stay informed, but that does not mean that politics has to bleed into every kind of media. People specifically turn to the news for political coverage and analysis, and other forms of television or internet content often present a welcome escape from politics. ESPN, for instance, is at its best when it avoids political coverage that does not pertain to sports. Even humorous shows with a slightly stronger political tinge, like the “Colbert Report” or “South Park,” fortunately refrain from overtly backing political causes. A politician’s occasional foray into comedic or entertainment programming, though, can be refreshing — and it can be a very effective political tool if done correctly.

Obama’s — or, for that matter, any other politician’s — decision to venture into more unconventional media could yield significant benefits for promoting any number of future causes. Indeed, that much is already becoming evident with the ACA: soon after his interview with Galifianakis, Healthcare.gov’s user traffic increased by 40 percent. It is not hard to see why this strategy could be immensely effective, either. Obama’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns” freed him from the inherent rigidity and partisanship that exists on shows for stations like Fox News or MSNBC. The show’s informal setting and Galifianakis’ casual style allowed Obama to speak informally and, at times, humorously about his goals, which is a welcome change given how serious mainstream news networks try to make every issue. Though the conversation and questions were no doubt meticulously premeditated, Obama nevertheless appeared more personable than is generally possible on national news. Additionally, his appearance in a niche YouTube video likely increased his likability among the youth — a crucial demographic the ACA hopes to target.

Of course, Obama’s slightly unconventional attempts to push the ACA have not come without backlash. Perhaps most notably, Bill O’Reilly castigated the president by saying that President Abraham Lincoln would not have made the same choice to appear on a YouTube show. O’Reilly subsequently explained that Obama’s choice to appear on “Between Two Ferns” did not send a satisfactory image of a stalwart president during a time in which America needs to project strength, especially towards Vladimir Putin and Russia. O’Reilly’s objection — no matter how ridiculous of an extrapolation it may have been — is not an uncommon one. Critics of Obama’s choice believe it is unbecoming of the president to appear on talk shows or YouTube channels, as a president is too important and worthy of respect to be treated like any other celebrity.

Taken to the extreme, such concerns are valid. A president should not undermine his respect and authority by appearing on too many talk shows or by seeking too strongly to promote his image as a just another “ordinary guy.” As much as he may actually have in common with the average citizen, the president’s job as America’s leader makes him fundamentally different from everyone else. Conversely, the president should demonstrate a joking and personal side. Nobody wants an unrelatable, robotic leader, and it is already too easy to dehumanize politicians by either praising or denouncing them purely based on their political beliefs. In fact, I would argue Obama’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns” is no more gimmicky than, say, throwing out the first pitch during a baseball game. Both allow him to extend some form of solidarity with the average citizen — at least as much as possible from within his role as president.

Obama’s talk show circuit is a practical way to promote causes about which he his passionate. And, as long as they do not abuse the frequency of their appearances or seek to push small, inane goals, similar appearances could be beneficial to other politicians. Ultimately, the president should do what he deems most effective in getting his points across. If that means personally appearing on a YouTube channel to create an even broader audience, then taking that step is the wise decision.

Alex Yahanda is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Mondays.

Published March 24, 2014 in Opinion

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