After watching Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic report on the Tet Offensive, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said, “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Today, no network news anchor controls the pulse of the nation. Nowadays, conventional wisdom can be tracked, if not shaped, by the fake newscasters. Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment now showcase what the New York media elites now think of their Washington counterparts. And judging from a week’s worth of TiVo, President Obama is in trouble.
Whether it’s Stephen Colbert’s over the top imitation of conservative talk shows or Tina Fey’s devastating mockery of the still-unknown Sarah Palin, late night and cable comedy does more to tell us what the cool kids think of our political figures than either the network news or the front page of the paper.
At Saturday Night Live, Fred Armisen has been struggling to mine humor from Barack Obama’s low-key personal style. But last week’s opening sketch was a shift in tone. Responding to Obama’s Olympic pratfall in Copenhagen, Armisen portrayed the President as impotent despite immense personal popularity and Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress. Listing his two biggest accomplishments of the past year, Armisen’s Obama said “Jack” and “Squat.”
Jon Stewart has also picked up on the lack of progress from the progressive President. On the Daily Show’s “Democratic Super Majority” segment, Stewart says the unstoppable Democratic machine would be like a bear, with chainsaws for paws, but can’t get a health care bill out of the Senate Finance Committee. The nation’s comedy gatekeepers are catching on the popular perception that Obama and his Democratic allies can’t legislate their way out of a paper bag, and while they are sympathetic to the Democrats’ plight, Stewart and company can’t afford to let their political sympathies get in the way of a good joke.
The President needs to shift the storyline, or at least the punch line. The White House will still be a source for comedy gold, and just about the only thing worth watching on SNL these days. But the jokes don’t have to be about Obama’s continuing string of failures. Luckily, this is exactly why Jefferson and Madison wrote the Vice-Presidency into the Constitution. No one on the planet is in better position to take the comedy bullet than Joe Biden. But he’d better hurry. Because if Barack Obama loses Jon Stewart... he’ll probably still carry Manhattan.
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