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Ghosts of Sound Bites Past: A Quick Take on Jon Stewart’s Interview with President Obama

October 29, 2010

President Obama’s interview with Jon Stewart was mostly unremarkable, although I did think it was interesting how the two men revisited past discourse including Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans.  Obama also revisited an infamous comment made by President Bush about Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Katrina crisis.  Here are some quick thoughts:

1.  Revisiting Campaign Slogans

Obama twice speculated about how his presidential campaign slogans might have had a second half to them, a second half that acknowledged the reality of how difficult changing the political process would prove to be. He first told Stewart that, when he promised 2008 voters change they could “believe in,” he wasn’t promising  “change you can believe in in 18 months.” Later, near the end of the interview, Jon Stewart sardonically asked the president if he might have said “yes we can… given certain circumstances” instead of just “yes we can.”  In response, Obama said:

I think what I’d say is, “yes we can, but… it is not… [Jon Stewart and audience laughter]…but it’s not gonna, it’s not gonna happen overnight and…

When Stewart announced that he would be interviewing Obama, I had a feeling that Stewart would bring up the disconnect between the unbridled optimism of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the much darker mood of the 2010 midterms.  In the interview, the two men discussed the difference by taking 2008 language and negotiating how that language would have to change in order to fit the current political mood. Obama and Stewart chose to reconstruct the past and compare it to the present through slogans, and I’m not sure about the significance of that choice.  It might speak to the continuing importance and enduring nature of sound bites in our political culture.

2. Revisiting a Katrina-era Bushism

During the interview, Obama described Larry Summers, current-and-soon-to-be-former director of the National Economic Council, as having done “a heck of a job.”  His wording echoed (unintentionally, I think) Bush’s description of Michael D. Brown’s performance as director of FEMA during the Katrina crisis.  Stewart picked up on this right away, telling Obama: “you don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”

Few journalists get the chance to call the president “dude,” and I suspect that even fewer would choose to point out Obama’s slip during an interview.  Obama laughingly responded, “pun intended.”  But it wasn’t a pun, at least not in the dictionary sense of the word.  It also clearly wasn’t intented—what kind of a person would intentionally make a joking reference to the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina?

I’m sure Obama just meant “whoops” when he said “pun intended” but the latent Freudian in me wants to read into his choice of words.  Did Obama, on an unconscious level, mean to insinuate that Summers had performed poorly?  Was it perhaps an acknowledgement that others feel Summers didn’t perform well?  This is beyond the purview of rhetoricians, but it’s fun to think about.

If you want to know more:

  • “Pun intended” is probably best understood as a formula meant to save face.  In Erving Goffman’s terms, we might say that Obama was injecting himself as an animator into the interview in order to comment directly on his own discourse and disavow a particular interpretation.  See Forms of Talk (in particular, “Footing” and page 148) for a more detailed explanation.
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