Addressing House Republicans recently, President Barack Obama said some things are more important than high poll numbers — "and on this, no one can accuse me of not living by my principles."
That joke about his own ratings slide drew a hearty laugh from some of the president's fiercest political foes. It also neatly captured Obama's sense of humor: mordant, self-deprecating, deeply ironic.
Does Barack Obama have a funny bone? The president certainly doesn't seem to see himself as a natural comic. But more often than he gets credit for, he flashes a sharp and wry humor. It's an important component of his style, helping to humanize an otherwise detached persona in ways that could prove valuable in the political wars ahead.
"He has a natural gleam in his eye," said comedian and actor Larry Miller ("Pretty Woman," "10 Things I Hate About You"), who first noticed it during the campaign.
‘Dry, elegant wit’
At the annual Al Smith charity banquet in 2008, then-candidate Obama had New York's tuxedoed elite in stitches with a sendup of his fawning treatment by the national media. "Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger," he said to knowing laughter. "I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the Planet Earth."
"I mean, this guy was funny," Miller recalled. "And not just in timing, or politically funny, or a little bit funny. He really had them going. He was saying things with a dry, elegant wit."
Inevitably, though, much of Obama's humor does involve politics.
In his State of the Union speech, he called the bank bailout "as popular as a root canal." He suggested monthly meetings with congressional leaders, adding archly, "I know you can't wait."
At a New Hampshire town meeting, he faulted Republicans for slamming the government stimulus package and then praising the hometown projects that it financed. "They've found a way to have their cake — and vote against it, too," he said.
During a college basketball game, the left-handed Obama told an interviewer he met with House Republicans "to prove that I could go to my right once in a while."
Butt of his jokes
The lion's share of Obama's humor is aimed not at his foes, but at himself.
At a recent observance of International Women's Day, he saluted heroic women "from those on the Mayflower to the one I'm blessed to call my wife, who looked across the dinner table, and thought, 'I'm smarter than that guy.'" It brought down the house.
In Obama's comic telling, the first lady is the one who keeps him in line, or takes him down a peg when he needs it. He speaks of daughters Malia and Sasha and other women in his life as natural bosses.
Speaking about a planned tween sleepover his daughters had in the works, Obama told a reporter "there are 24 double-X chromosomes up in Camp David as we speak. It's a little intimidating."
So how does Obama rate on the scale of modern presidential humor? Pretty high, it turns out.
"I think he does have a good sense of humor," said Meena Bose, a presidential historian at Hofstra University. "He has a cerebral one, though. It's this dry irony. You have to pay pretty close attention to get some of what he's saying."
Humor of presidents past
To many, the comedic gold standard among modern presidents was John F. Kennedy. Whether it was live news conferences or interplay with audiences, Kennedy always seemed to be ready with a witticism to charm or disarm. And he had a profound sense of the absurd. After declaring at the Berlin Wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner", Kennedy paused for translation, then deadpanned, "I appreciate my interpreter translating my German."
But other recent presidents have been standout humorists, too. Think of Ronald Reagan, the day he was shot, telling emergency room doctors, "I hope you're all Republicans."
Think also of after-dinner speeches by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at banquets of White House correspondents.
In Clinton's farewell video, aired at the correspondents' dinner, he played a bored househusband, wandering the White House knocking over vending machines as his wife was off campaigning. Bush, for his part, appeared with a comedian-double who gave voice to his goofy — and ungrammatical — inner thoughts.
Such self-mockery contributes to a leader's likeability, and can help grease the wheels of Washington policymaking.
"A good sense of humor won't make the reputation of a president," Bose said. "But a good sense of humor can bolster a good reputation.
"It indicates comfort, a sense of not being overwhelmed by the demands of the job," she said.
In Obama's case, it may help explain why his personal popularity has stayed strong, even as his job approval numbers have slumped. In a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, nine in 10 said they like Obama, including three of four Republicans.
Pros and cons
It can't hurt that Obama tries not to take things too seriously.
In June, visiting King Abdullah's horse farm near Riyadh, he got the grim-faced Saudi monarch to crack a smile by admiring an enormous tent-like audience hall: "This is a much nicer tent than you gave to Prince Charles."
Last May, he asked orbiting astronauts if they could see his Chicago home: "I'm trying to figure out if my lawn is getting mowed. I haven't been back in a couple months."
Of course, Obama's humor has also gotten him in trouble. Following a "Tonight" show appearance, he apologized for comparing his weak bowling skills to those of Special Olympics athletes.
A few examples of Obama's unflashy wit:
- In an interview, he complained of the "shine police," aides who follow him around to pat him with TV makeup.
- Speaking about Mother's Day, he praised his sharp-tongued chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who's "not used to saying the word 'day' after 'mother.'"
- At a Nevada high school, he envied the principal's standing ovation: "Obviously not exam time yet."
- In a photo session, he declined to wear a helmet thrust at him by the champion University of Alabama football team: "It'll mess up my do."
- Praising high-speed rail, he noted its less-stringent-than-airport security: "You don't have to take off your shoes. Right? Check to see if you're wearing the socks with no holes in them?"
Miller, a veteran of standup and comedy writing, has some unsolicited advice for Obama: Do it more.
"I would let it out a little," Miller said. "He's keeping it under a bushel. You want to say, 'Buddy, turn the brights down a little and let some of that humor come out. ...' ".
"People think of humor as being frivolous. But it's not. It's just a different kind of wisdom."