Fiesty

10.24.12

Hillaryland Chafes at Obama’s Debate Sarcasm

The president unleashed a sarcastic snarl in the final debate. Michelle Cottle on Hillaryland’s reaction—and the risks and rewards of laying it on thick.

How snarky was President Obama in his final debate with Mitt Romney?

He was scornful enough that, during the midst of the matchup, Hillaryland insiders were circulating amongst themselves a twit pic featuring that kick-ass photo of Hillary in her shades, captioned by Obama’s infamous put-down from one of their ’08 debates: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” 

Message: the arch, condescending Obama that so chafed Hillary backers was back with a vengeance.

Indeed, the overwhelming buzz out of Monday night’s foreign policy debate had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with Obama’s barbed one-liners and derisive demeanor, which stood in particularly stark contrast to the governor’s enduringly low-key, hyper-earnest style. Drawing special notice was the POTUS’s sneering “horses and bayonets” riff in response to Romney’s observation that our Navy has fewer ships now than a century ago. Also drawing snickers was his line, “The ’80s called. They want their foreign policy back.” 

Many Dems cheered the sharp-quipped president, especially those demoralized by his sorry showing two debates ago in Denver. (As @JohnKerry tweeted, “I think POTUS just sank Romney’s battleship.”) 

By contrast, Republicans were quick to proclaim shock and disgust at the president’s behavior. “We don’t have as many horses and bayonets as we used to, Mitt!” mimics Republican pollster Whit Ayres, his voice growing higher, shriller, and louder with each word. “I guess you didn’t learn much going to Harvard, did you, Mitt? How stupid are you, Mitt?!”

His voice coming back down to earth, Ayres huffs, “This is the president of the U.S. acting like a schoolyard bully.”

Video screenshot

In a night filled with jabs at his GOP counterpart, Obama seemed to channel 'Seinfeld's George Costanza when he said, 'the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.'

Republicans also argue that the move will backfire politically. “Sarcasm poses a tremendous risk among female voters, especially above 30 years old,” contends Michael Wissot, a senior strategist with Luntz Global, the communications firm founded by GOP spin doctor Frank Luntz. “Women value leaders who can work together to deliver real results. Sarcasm conveys an unwillingness or an inability to be bipartisan. That’s a problem for the president.”

“Independents can’t stand that sort of immature childish nyah nyah nyah-nayh nayh,” agrees Ayres.

Indeed, some Dems express anxiety about how the president’s snark will ultimately play. One veteran strategist notes disapprovingly that “there was some attitude there” and muses: “The question is whether a sense of irony is really a qualification for national leadership?” (Quipped the strategist, “That is itself an ironic question.”) 

Sarcasm is not without risks, acknowledges Jeff Hancock, an associate professor of communications at Cornell. “It can be done in way that is condescending,” says Hancock. “And it was pretty clear that President Obama was expressing a pretty disdainful attitude towards Governor Romney’s views and expertise.” 

What’s more, while modern America is awash in snark and sarcasm, certain demographic groups tend to find it more attractive than others. For instance, research suggests that (in keeping with the conventional stereotypes) men and Northerners tend to be more sarcastic than women and Southerners. 

His voice coming back down to earth, Ayres huffs, “This is the president of the U.S. acting like a schoolyard bully.”

That said, if done correctly, sarcasm can prove a powerful political tool in establishing connections with constituencies, says Hancock. “You’re showing that you know you and the in-group are on the same page.” 

Certainly, as Ayres sees it, Obama’s goal last night was to energize his partisan base. “He basically said, ‘I’m gonna have to fire up angry Democrats and to hell with independents.’”

Of course, with post-debate instapolls overwhelmingly giving the win to the president, it doesn’t seem as though most viewers were bothered by Obama’s attitude.

As Hillarylanders know all too well, voters are willing to tolerate a little snark in the heat of battle.