The Chuckle-Monster

Headlines turn the president's laugh into a “gaffe”

Steve Kroft’s Sunday night interview with President Obama covered substantive things, like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s bank rescue plan, which was rolled out Monday, and the need for an exit strategy in Afghanistan. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that those substantive moments came from the same 60 Minutes interview during which Our President Laughed.

FOX’s Bret Baier labeled it the interview “in which President Obama laughed about the economy.” The Washington Post interviewed PR gurus to gauge how damaging a TV moment it was for the president. USA Today’s The Oval blog asked, “What do you think of Obama’s laughter?” and noted, “Plug a search for ‘Obama + “punch drunk”’ into Google News this hour and you’ll get nearly 2,000 results. That’s how quickly one exchange from last night’s 60 Minutes interview with the president has captured folks’ attention.” A clip of the show, put up yesterday by Hot Air with the title, “60 Minutes Kroft to Joking Obama, ‘Are you Punch Drunk?’” has garnered 65,000 hits on YouTube. Politico characterized the interview by stating that Obama was “pressed by Steve Kroft for laughing and chuckling several times while discussing the perilous state of the world’s economy.”

Fact: put the words “chuckling” and “perilous state of the world’s economy” together in a sentence, and whoever’s doing the chuckling is going to come off looking like an insensitive bastard. But did the moment merit the hype?

Hardly. Here’s the excerpt from the interview that headlines and pundits honed in on, like bees to honey:

OBAMA: I just want to say that— the only thing less popular than putting money into banks is putting money (LAUGHS) into the auto industry. So—

KROFT: 18 percent are in favor.


KROFT: Seventy-six percent against.

OBAMA: It— it— it’s not a high number.

KROFT: You’re sitting here. And you’re— you are laughing. You are laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, “I mean, he’s sitting there just making jokes about (LAUGHTER) money—” How do you deal with— I mean, wh— explain -

OBAMA: Well—

KROFT: —the mood and your laughter.

OBAMA: Yeah, I mean, there’s got to be—

KROFT: Are you punch drunk?

OBAMA: No, no. There’s gotta be a little gallows humor to (LAUGHS) get you through the day. You know, sometimes my team— talks about the fact that if— if you had said to us a year ago that— the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem— I don’t think anybody would have believed it. But— but we’ve got a lot on our plate. And— a lot of difficult decisions that we’re going to have to make.

Sure, there’s a developing sense that Obama is losing some points in the communicating-with-the-public game—the leadership quality he’s supposed to have in the bag (cue: foot-in-mouth Special Olympics comment). But it’s completely irrelevant, and more, irresponsible, to use some mid-interview laughs as a sort of sly proof that Obama thinks glibly about the economy and about the people who are most affected by the downturn. The president laughs about the economy! It’s a tempting interpretation (do you hear the whirring of the sound bite machine?), but it’s also a facile one—of a simple behavioral response. And it’s a hatchet job of a next chapter in the troublesomely glossy narrative that has been building around the president’s image—what it was (aloof!), has been (detached!), and what this incident might now prove (out of touch! callously cool!).

This type of narrative building is a problem not because there aren’t true elements to it, but because it looks for proof, thrives on setting up opposites (Obama laughs! Public shocked!), and creates drama where there is none (activity: contemplate the functional wisdom of asking readers the question, “What do you think of Obama’s laughter?”—I drew a blank).

Anyone who watches the entire segment will see that there wasn’t anything loaded about Obama’s laughter. (Most commentators ultimately admitted as much.) And no one in his or her right mind would think, as the administration rolled out its bank rescue plan yesterday, that Obama was making light of the economy, or, really, any aspect of his job—from bailing out the auto industry to talking up the plan for the newly dubbed legacy assets to assuaging public opinion of the beleaguered Geithner. And that’s precisely what makes the spotlight on Obama’s laughter so frustrating. It may have been a politically louche moment, but no one actually thinks it’s consequential. The discrepancy between the headlines and the stories—“punch drunk”-heavy on top, more substantive down below—shows us as much.

And yet, keeping in line with the let’s-make-something-out-of-nothing state of mind, the NYT, prepping its readers for Obama’s primetime press conference tonight, asks, “Will he make any gaffes?” The laughter wasn’t a gaffe. But yes, that’s the way to ramp up for tomorrow’s story. Maybe he’ll even flash his pearly whites.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.