One of the many little thrills of being a part of the Obama campaign four years ago was a deep and abiding sense that, finally, a political leader had come along who could live up to our highest aspirations. Yes, Obama was cool and played basketball and was conversant in ironical youth culture, but when it came down to it, he was overwhelmingly serious. The other guys were hauling unlicensed plumbers onstage and suspending their campaign at the drop of a hat, but Obama kept his eyes on the prize and played the grown-up. Now he's talking about "Romnesia."
If anything, Obama's 2008 campaign promised a president who would actively repudiate the frenetic, aggressively stupid cable-news culture that had engulfed political reporting. His campaign manager David Plouffe was openly derisive of Time's Mark Halperin and Politico, the two chief avatars of empty-calorie bitch-slap politics: "If Politico and Halperin say we're winning, we're losing." Obama himself confidently mocked the cable-news conflagration that was the Tea Party summer—people were getting "all wee-wee'd up" for no good reason. His inaugural address—a deeply depressing read in light of the last four years—contained a stern admonition to those who insisted on sweating the small stuff: "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises.... [I]n the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."
That's the same guy who let loose last night, in the midst of a debate that was ostensibly about how many people we are going to kill over the next four years and under what circumstances, this little nugget: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back."
That's a middling joke. It should by no means be coming from the president of the United States, let alone one who promised to put away childish things. It's a dumb "zinger," transparently crafted to appeal to the Mark Halperins and Politicos of the world. That's not to say that humor has no place in political rhetoric or that Obama betrays his promise every time he deigns to insult his opponent. But to graft a pre-planned VH1 Best Week Ever-level joke onto a nationally televised discussion about life and death and our role on the world stage is scarcely less pathetic than the desperate flailings of the McCain campaign that I smugly scoffed at four years ago.
It's not just that joke. Obama has taken to using "Romnesia" to describe Romney's inability or unwillingness to hew to a policy position for more than two weeks. "He's forgetting what his own positions are, and he's betting that you will, too," Obama said at a rally in Virginia last week. "We've got to name this condition that he's going through. I think it's called 'Romnesia.'" Today, summing up the debate, Obama called Romney's performance "at least Stage 3 Romnesia."
This is very, very dumb. Maybe "Romnesia" is a funny, handy term that usefully carries an important anti-Romney message. But even if it is, it is just too juvenile and jokey to be coming from the president. He shouldn't be making jokes based on his opponent's name. That's what vice presidents are for. Put it in John Kerry's mouth. He'll say anything.
But when Obama says it, it comes off as unserious and jocular. It's the kind of joke that, had a speechwriter proposed it four years ago, 2008 Obama would have smirked at and said, "OK guys, let's get down to work." The term, it bears noting, was apparently coined on Twitter by a guy going by the name of @breakingnuts. This is not how you put away childish things.
Nor is it by holding up a binder at your stump speech, as Joe Biden has taken to doing in mockery of Romney's "binders full of women line." The "binders" meme is just that—a funny little Twitter and Tumblr belch, an acerbic diversion. For the vice president of the United States to pick up on it and amplify it in an attempt to harvest a perceived opportunity is to confuse dumb gags with arguments. It's what John Ellis calls the "trending on Twitter" campaign, and it's beneath Obama. Twitter—as with other social media that both campaigns are desperately working—is just as empty and mindless as the cable news void Obama decried so effectively four years ago. For his campaign to routinely venerate its judgments today is fundamentally at odds with Obama's sense of himself as the adult in the room.
So stick to the serious stuff and let dumb bloggers make the jokes, Mr. President. That's what we're here for. You're getting all wee-wee'd up.
[Image via Getty]