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Obama's Carrot and Shtick Approach

If you can't get a chuckle across the aisle, how could you have gotten health care reform across?
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Following Republicans' upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race last week, the latest narrative about President Obama has said he's out of touch with middle-class Americans. They want jobs; he's trying to give them health care reform. They're worried about the economy; he wants to fix the environment. They want bailouts for their families; he's been giving them to big bankers.

In response, the one thing Obama may have done best in his State of the Union to connect to average Americans was something a lot of us do when we're in a bind or have botched something pretty badly: He acknowledged it with awkward, self-deprecating jokes.

There's nothing further from haughty politician rhetoric than, "We all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal."

Obama's address was peppered with laugh lines, many at his own expense and almost all of them used to broach the touchiest topics in Washington today: the fate of health care reform, the Capitol's crippling partisanship, the expectations he carried into office that he inevitably could not meet.

"Now, I'm not naive," he said. "I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony - and some post-partisan era."

He nodded to the many elephants in the room (a double-entendre he's welcome to borrow next year) by ribbing about them, in the process giving what has been his most humor-filled speech to date.

He plans to visit Republican leadership with which he appears to have not a single thing in common — "I know you can't wait," he told them.

So his health care reform appears dead on arrival? "By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics," he quipped.

He touts all his tax cuts for the middle class, an evergreen Republican priority, and no one on the right side the chamber appears to approve? "I thought I'd get some applause on that one," he ad-libbed.

Humor in grave situations is always a perilous exercise. There's a fine line between telling jokes in the State of the Union, and making a joke out of it (or yourself). Some critics inevitably griped this morning that Obama had done the latter.

But whether the lines amuse or fall flat (or amuse exactly half the audience while falling flat across the aisle), there's something almost endearing about watching someone try to grapple with hard times using the strategy of last resort. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Unless you're the president and you have to give an hourlong speech to a joint session of Congress, including many legislators intent on blockading your ideas before you've even formed them — well then, tell a joke.

George W. Bush did it. Bill Clinton did it. Ronald Reagan did it.

Before Clinton's 1996 speech, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said his best hopes for the address were that it contain just five words: "Thank you and good night." So Clinton wrote those five words on a piece of paper and handed it to Gingrich before beginning his real (and much wordier) speech. In video footage of the event, you can see the two men sharing a private joke during Clinton's introductory ovation.

Bush got high marks during his 2004 address for rebutting criticism that the U.S. should include the international community in rebuilding Iraq. "This particular criticism is hard to explain," he said, "to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador..." (he kept going, but you get the point).

Reagan opened his 1982 speech with a joke that wasn't particularly political but that set the tone for his folksy style.

"President Washington began this tradition in 1790 after reminding the nation that the destiny of self-government and the 'preservation of the sacred fire of liberty' is 'finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,'" he began.

Before adding: "For our friends in the press who place a high premium on accuracy, let me say, I did not actually hear George Washington say that."

Even Democrats laughed, which may say something about how far the cheesy presidential joke has fallen in two decades.

Obama Wednesday night got few bipartisan chuckles, as strong an indicator as any from this year's State of the Union of how productive his pleas for cooperation are likely to be.

For if you can't get a one-liner across party lines in Washington, how are you supposed to move hundred-page pieces of legislation?