Barack Obama’s major speeches are often memorable for their eloquent oratory. However, his State of the Union address last night will earn a place in history, not for the poetry of its words nor the boldness of its initiatives, but because Barack Obama uttered one of the corniest jokes in American political history. In a passage of his speech on government regulation, the president proudly boasted, “We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill—because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.”
The cornball crack (if only he were in Iowa!) produced groans in the House chamber and around the world. Never mind killing Osama bin Laden or letting every homeowner refinance her mortgage—Twitter traffic about the speech peaked after the joke was made as listeners rolled their eyes (or is that their thumbs?) in 140 characters or less. Television cameras caught Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) air-drumming a rim shot.
But Obama should take comfort—his milk moment joins an esteemed tradition of politicians falling flat with corny one-liners.
If the president does face off against Mitt Romney, he’ll be up against a Republican who’s no slouch himself when it comes to mistimed jokes and awkward attempts at humor. In his big rally in Clive, Iowa, the night before the caucuses, Romney jokingly introduced his wife, Ann, as his daughter. He then segued to talking about first meeting her when she was in second grade. But for a candidate who feigned being groped by waitresses and has quoted the Baha Men in an attempt to win the youth vote, the bar for humor shouldn’t be set too high.
Romney could take heart from an example across the pond, where future Prime Minister David Cameron proved in 2009 that an awkward attempt at humor by a center-right patrician is no impediment to winning power. Cameron decided the best way to mock a Labour proposal for a national ID card was to use a mock German accent and ask “where are your papers?” The result raised eyebrows, and an audience member asked, "I wonder about the wisdom of you adopting a German accent?" Cameron meekly defended himself by saying that “it was meant to be light-hearted."
Occasionally, bad jokes do come back to bite candidates. John McCain famously answered a question about U.S. policy toward Iran at a 2007 town hall in South Carolina by citing “that old Beach Boys’ song ‘Bomb Iran.’ Bomb, bomb, bomb” to the tune of their song “Barbara Ann.” McCain continued to get questions about this throughout his presidential campaign, telling those who were upset to “get a life.” It even became fodder for Barack Obama, who brought up the moment when the two debated to question McCain’s temperament.
Obama gained some bipartisan relief from his milk bomb when the Republican response to his address included its own cringe-inducing attempt at humor. “The late Steve Jobs—what a fitting name he had,“ said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who claimed the Apple founder had created more jobs than President Obama’s stimulus, producing another spike of merciless tweets. Daniels at least had the small mercy of delivering his weak pun straight to the camera, sparing him the reaction shot of a groaning audience.