SNL and the Obamalypics: Only the beginning?
posted at 11:33 pm on October 4, 2009 by Karl
This weekend’s SNL cold opening, in which Pres. Obama (impersonated badly by Fred Armisen) riffs over his list of non-accomplishments, may be a blip — or the beginning of something larger. Allahpundit notes the omissions from that list, e.g., doing anything about Iran’s nuclear program, but that is no surprise. Even including the infamous bailout sketch, the number of SNL sketches written with any sort of conservative viewpoint over the show’s decades on-air can probably be counted on one hand.
More broadly, while SNL always tries to cultivate an “edgy” image, the reality is that its treatment of the presidency has never had much of a sharp, satiric edge. Nor has it been based much on policy. Writing at Big Hollywood earlier this year, Chris Stigall accurately describes what the show really does:
Pick your high-profile candidate or president of the last 30 years and Saturday Night Live created a lasting and often crippling parody of their character and leadership flaws. Chevy Chase’s Ford was a bumbling klutz and Dan Aykroyd’s Carter, a smooth and smiling empty suit. Dana Carvey’s elder Bush was stilted with scripted throwaway lines. Phil Hartman’s Regan [sic!] was gentile on the outside but a calculating power-broker on the inside. Every year, every election they kept them coming.
Bill Clinton was a McDonald’s-starved sex fiend. George W. Bush was a cocky moron led by the cold, sinister Dick Cheney. Remember Ross Perot and his charts, Admiral Stockdale’s loony rants, and Al Gore’s petulant, haughty sighs? Michael Dukakis had bushy eyebrows and a losing attitude. Hillary Clinton was a woman desperate for power at all costs and Joe Biden is a slick-talking, loud, brash, phony everyman with a Cheshire Cat grin. All classic SNL created characters still sold on collector DVDs to this day.
Stigall had already covered the show’s treatment of Sarah Palin, which was much in the same vein.
That SNL treated Pres. Obama essentially the way it treated Carter, after months of sketches where wacky things happened around the cool, collected Pres. Obama, is not a good development for the White House. It may be, in itself, a small thing, but it is potentially a telling one. The sketch included a reference to Chicago’s failed Olympic bid, and — as an e-mailer to Jonah Goldberg noted:
Unlike much of the political and economic arcana that has illustrated Obama’s failures, this one comes in an area that tens of millions of largely apolitical Americans are very emotionally invested in, sports. This is the lead story on ESPN right now. Lots of people who to this day have never heard of ACORN or Tim Geithner or TARP are being exposed to a major Obama failure. So I don’t at all see this as just an “inside the Beltway” failure; it’s more outside the Beltway than anything that’s ever been laid at his feet before.
Similarly, it is a fair guess that much of the SNL audience is not glued to C-SPAN the rest of the week.
The fact that Obama has yet to accomplish much of his agenda, even with a Democratic Congress (a fact the sketch pointedly mentions) is bad for the administration on several levels. It encourages his critics, depresses his supporters, and suggests to the apolitical middle that Obama is not competent. The last is significant because competence is perceived as a non-partisan issue. Whatever someone thinks of the Obama agenda, his failure on so much of it to date reflects badly on him.
Competence may not be a voting issue per se (In 1988, Dukakis tried to run on competence to run away from ideology), but it can be a accelerant to pre-existing discontent as he makes further missteps, much as Pres. Bush’s perceived failure in response to Hurricane Katrina further fueled his waning popularity over Iraq. It is the sort of thing likely to leave a mark, subconsciously or otherwise, on the weekend when unemployment reached its highest point since 1983. It is not a narrative Obama wants to take hold in the popular culture.
Such jokes carry more political sting than than jokes about Bill Clinton not being able to keep his fly closed, as some could dismiss that as a private matter. Indeed, Clinton survived the Lewinsky scandal in large part because he could always talk about working hard for the American people. He also survived in part because the economy was in good shape. Here, Obama is being mocked as ineffectual in the midst of economic misery.
Of course, if Obama can muscle a government takeover of the US healthcare system through Congress, folks on the staff of SNL will go back to honeymoon mode. But if he falters, he can look forward to being the butt of incompetency jokes for years.