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Rival Video

March 14, 2014

By now, it is probably no news to you that President Obama was on an episode of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. Not only did “President Barack Hussein Obamacare” (as Scott Aukerman [Between Two Ferns’ director]’s character “Scott Aukerman” calls him on his podcast, Comedy Bang! Bang!) plug the Affordable Care Act and Healthcare.gov, but he also played along and adopted the tone of the show with some impressively casual adeptness. More than just a sense of humor, Obama displayed a sense of savvy and understanding of the way certain segments of society now communicate.

Specifically, this spot is simply the latest example of Obama embracing democratic means of communication. The Internet has empowered otherwise disenfranchised and atomized voices by providing a focal point through which they can find one another and unite. Sometimes these groups are people without enough at stake in the establishment to wade through the “muck” of daily news reporting. Newly minted 18-year-olds and working-class voters have enough daily travails that they rationally disengage from politics because the potential benefit of learning the nuances of deliberately complicated policy questions is minimal. 

However, those same people don’t have to feel like their time is wasted if they are engaged in their own preferred manner, e.g., through a viral video, the new dominant medium of cultural exchange. Or maybe on a late night television show. Or maybe with memes, e.g.,

Another president who effectively used humor

What makes Obama’s appearance even more sensible is that this particular policy issue, enrollment in an insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, requires participation from the most politically disenfranchised people in America. These younger segments of society needed a reason to get informed, let alone to get enrolled, and if Obama’s semi-humorous appearance in a five-minute video did that, then that is an effective use of the bully pulpit. He certainly wouldn’t have reached the same audience on Meet the Press. Indeed, Healthcare.gov got a 40% bump in daily traffic after the stunt (with millions of views over the next several days), leaving Obama with the last laugh.

By the same token, this isn’t Funny Or Die’s first foray into the realm of the overtly political. They’ve actually had some pretty good sketch/ad hybrids for a while now. And people seem to forget that President Obama likes being funny in a relatable way (e.g.Correspondents’ Dinners, his appearances on Late Night with Jimmy FallonLeno, etc.). So, while Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns was unexpected, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. It was the next logical step for reaching the portion of the electorate that matters for the Affordable Care Act.

The fact that some are decrying this particular advertisement (which is what it was, let’s face it) says less about the video itself and more about the reactionary dynamics that are now well-established in the old media. Fox News would say the sky is green if it scored points with folks predisposed to disliking Obama. And all the moreso given that the Affordable Care Act (or if saying Obama’s name is enough to make your blood curdle, read: Obamacare) is the subject matter. But these shrieks are incoherent in an evolving democracy. The electorate needs to be informed and educated, regardless of the medium. To hold politics itself above the hoi polloi is to limit the access of the political process to those with vested interests or to those with the luxury of time to spend learning about politics.

And Obama is hardly the first president to appear on a new medium to communicate his position.

Just as Kennedy beat Nixon through his legendarily telegenic debate appearance, Obama has simply been making effective use of new media that aren’t going anywhere.

It’s too soon for us to judge whether Obama’s fondness for non-traditional media is an anomaly; complaining that Obama spends more time on internet video than his predecessors is a little like complaining that Calvin Coolidge spent more time on radio addresses than Warren Harding.

But the one thing that is missing from the national discussion of Obama’s “new” media approach is how safe this move was for Obama. Obama’s true media revolution came during his presidential campaigns, the recent NSA scandal notwithstanding. His campaign used hyper-local and hyper-specific data about voters collected from the online surveillance apparatus to make decisions like which celebrities to invite to which events, and when and how often to hit up voters up for fundraising dollars without sounding desperate.

So Obama went on a well-established web series with a household celebrity name (that might be difficult for Fox News commentators to pronounce) who happens to be just slightly edgy and can function like a punching bag for a president on the offensive. Not much of a risk. On the contrary, Between Two Ferns was the right platform for Obama to reach out to include the 50% of eligible voters who stay at home every election. The alternative, digging heels into political point-scoring, would have resulted in the same outcome: Democrats cheer, Republicans boo, and America stuck between the two.

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