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Obama the star

The President bearing the weight of great expectations is receiving mixed reviews for his recent public appearances. Barack Obama’s detractors say that they never expected the man who won the US Presidential elections on the back of his brilliant oratory skills to disappoint on this score, yet that is just where he is being found lacking of late — for excessive dependence on his teleprompter, for long winding responses to questions, for being too detached. Far more damaging, perhaps, is the perception that he is spending too much time and effort on being perceived as cool when what the nation needs is a commander.

His supporters, on the other hand, say that Obama is trying to speak the language of everyday, to reach out to the everyman that the economic crisis is affecting. That it is better that he use a teleprompter or fumble a bit than spend hours committing speeches to memory when he has far larger fish to fry. That if the President is trying to get public perception on his side, it is because he knows just how important the confidence of the people is.

The trigger for much of the talk has been Obama’s interview with Jay Leno, the first ever late-night talk show act by a sitting American President. Political analysts are questioning the wisdom of this soft appearance on The Tonight Show at a time when Washington is playing hardball over the contentious AIG bonuses. It was a PR exercise for sure, directed at the average lay viewer. If Obama has come across as a bit of the disapproving schoolteacher of late, he is trying hard to inject some levity despite all the gloom and doom.

The question is, did it work?

The verdict seems to be that, overall, it did. Except for that awful Special Olympics gaffe, which absolutely no one liked. As soon as the words left his mouth, likening his own performance in bowling to something you might see in the Special Olympics, you could see the dismay in his eyes. Obama called the Special Olympics authorities just after the recording to apologise, but the damage had already been done. Comments started doing the rounds about Obama’s faltering sense of humour, and in particular his lack of skill in laughing at himself. If you remember, that was the one arena in which George W. Bush was a true champion. (Didn’t he have to be?)

This is not a commentary on whether Obama is a success in the hotseat of the world; it is a look at whether Obama, public speaker extraordinaire, has his finger on the funny bone of America, and the rest of the globe. We take a look at some of his best lines over the years, and the image he is taking pains to send out.

Obama the funny guy

From the Leno couch

Barack Obama and Jay Leno on The Tonight Show

On the scrutiny of 59 days in office: “It’s a little bit like American Idol, but everyone is Simon Cowell. Everyone’s got an opinion.”

On flying in Air Force One: “Let me tell you, personally I think it is pretty cool. Especially ’cause they give you the jacket with the seal on it. But Malia and Sasha, my daughters, they’re just not that impressed.” It was the candy, he said, in Marine One, which caught their attention. “They’ve got a whole other level of cool.”

On when the dog he promised his daughters would arrive in the White House: “Listen, this is Washington. That was a campaign promise.”

[He quickly clarified that he was only “teasing”, and that the dog would “be in place” shortly. He said he would enjoy the company of the pet as much as his daughters: “They say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”]

Straight talk

Spoken during the campaign, these words may explain the tone he chose during the Jay Leno interview: “You notice that people who’ve been in Washington too long, they don’t talk like ordinary folks. We had this debate in Las Vegas, and somebody asked me, What are your weaknesses? So I said, Well, you know, I don’t keep track of paper that well, I’m always losing paper, my desk is a mess. And then they asked the next two candidates. And one candidate says, Well, my biggest weakness is I’m just so passionate about helping poor people. And then the other one says, I’m just so impatient to help the American people solve their problems. So then I realise, well, I wish I’d gone last and then I would have known. I’m stupid that way, I thought that when they asked what your biggest weakness was, they asked what your biggest weakness was. And now I know that my biggest weakness is I like to help old ladies across the street.”

“I inhaled. That was the point.”

In reference to past drug use, poking fun at Bill Clinton’s claims that he had smoked marijuana but had not inhaled.

On fame

“It’s like I was shot out of a cannon. I’m so overexposed, I’m making Paris Hilton look like a recluse.”

And that was way back in December 2004. He has also said:

The fact that my 15 minutes of fame has extended a little longer than 15 minutes is somewhat surprising to me and completely baffling to my wife.

If the mass hysteria about Brand Obama started getting to him, he managed to poke fun at himself last year at a high profile charity event in October, his 10-minute speech a laugh riot:

“Who is Barack Obama? Contrary to the rumours you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the Planet Earth. Many of you know that I got my name, Barack, from my father. What you may not know is Barack is actually Swahili for ‘That One.’ And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for President. If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it’s possible that I’m a little too awesome.”

Barack and Michelle Obama at the inaugural ball

On good vibrations

And to stress that he doesn’t share a roving eye — or hand — with his immediate Democrat predecessor, he said this while posing for a picture with supporters in Indiana on the campaign trail, when he apparently felt his phone vibrate in his pocket with a woman rather too close for comfort: “Now that’s my phone buzzing there. I don’t want you to think I’m getting fresh or anything.”

On Oprah

This list of “top 10 campaign promises”, delivered on David Letterman prior to being elected, reflects his track record for late-night talk show appearances. It also shows how different his current position and post demands he behave:

10. To keep the budget balanced, I’ll rent the situation room for sweet sixteens.

9. I will double your tax money at the craps table.

8. Appoint Mitt Romney secretary of lookin’ good.

7. If you bring a gator to the White House, I’ll wrestle it.

6. I’ll put Regis on the nickel.

5. I’ll rename the tenth month of the year “Barack-tober.”

4. I won’t let Apple release the new and improved iPod the day after you bought the previous model.

3. I’ll find money in the budget to buy Letterman a decent hairpiece.

2. Pronounce the word nuclear, nuclear.

1. Three words: Vice President Oprah.

And though many observers may be surprised with how quick Obama’s golden halo seems to be tarnishing, the man himself has known for some time that fame and glory are fleeting, temporal things. This is what he said way back in 2007:

“It’s been a great ride. But I know how quickly these fads can pass.”

Obama the family man

“Most people who meet my wife quickly conclude that she is remarkable. They are right about this. She is smart, funny and thoroughly charming. Often, after hearing her speak at some function or working with her on a project, people will approach me and say something to the effect of, you know, I think the world of you, Barack, but your wife, wow!”

“My wife has been my closest friend, my closest adviser. And... she’s not somebody who looks to the limelight, or even is wild about me being in politics. And that’s a good reality check on me. When I go home, she wants me to be a good father and a good husband. And everything else is secondary to that.”

How cool, on a scale of 10, do you think Obama is? Tell

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