This has been bothering me for four years. And, since, in the lead-up to tonight’s presidential debate, it’s being talked about lot right now, I will talk about it a little more. I think lots of people are wrong: Barack Obama was not being “icy” or “condescending” or “arrogant” or “scornful” when he made the joke about Hillary Clinton being “likeable enough” in the 2008 democratic primary debate in New Hampshire. He was being funny in a nice, playful way. I thought it was great.
And I think Hillary Clinton and everyone else on the stage that night, certainly the moderator Scott Spradling, enjoyed it and took it in the spirit in which it was said. Obama was making a joke about being an arrogant jerk, he was in character, the way many of us are when we make jokes. It’s like the joke that everybody always makes in a restaurant when the waiter pours a little bit of wine into the glass of the person who ordered it, for him or her to taste (usually him, because of stubborn and unfortunate tradition) and the person takes a sip and says, “It’s dishwater, take it away!” in a snooty voice that’s really meant to convey, “I don’t know that much about wine. (And this tastes fine, thank you.)” The person is playing the role of a wine snob. That’s the same joke Obama was making that night.
It happened in a very nice, light moment in the debate, after Hillary had scored one of her better lines, one of the better lines in that whole campaign, in fact, by responding to Spradling’s assertion that voters “seem to like Obama more” by saying, “Well, that just hurts my feelings.” And then, after a well-timed pause, “But I’ll try to go on.” Everybody laughed — nicely, friendly, warmly even.
And Obama was just playing along, in the same spirit, it seemed to me, when he made what was deemed the following day, and what is now being referenced again, as his biggest debate faux pas. In her answer, Hillary kept the friendly tone by agreeing that her opponent was indeed very likeable — a nice, honest compliment — and with a coy defense of, “I don’t think I’m that bad.” When Obama interjected his now infamous bit of friendly teasing, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary — no doubt about it,” his joke was not, “You’re only somewhat likeable, Hillary.” Or, “I am much more likeable than you.” His joke was, “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone was so arrogant as to respond to a compliment with a snooty, withering remark.”
There was a whole ‘nother layer to the joke — one that Hillary seemed to get, and Spradling seemed to get, because they both laughed along more — but that by the very next day, a lot of people were missing or ignoring as they discussed the debate on TV or wrote articles about it in the press. That joke was subtle and sophisticated, and he muffed part of the telling by swallowing the exaggerative, “no doubt about it.” But I will never be convinced that it was meant in anything other than a nice way. A poke at the surreal circumstances two rival candidates for high political office find themselves in. It was a joke meant to share something with Hillary. “How ridiculous is it that we’re in this highest-of-profile popularity contest, answering questions about our own amiability or lack thereof, in front of a television audience of millions?!” It was a nice moment. The entire exchange. A couple smart, witty people being smart and witty! I enjoyed it. It made me like both of them more, not less.
Unfortunately, that’s not how a lot of other people received it. And a joke’s reception is certainly more important in that setting than its intent. It’s Obama’s responsibility to make sure that the audience and the commentating pundits in that audience get his jokes and think they’re funny, not mean-spirited. (Or, not mean-spirited in a genuinely aggressive or contemptuous way. I may well define that joke as “mean-spirited humour,” but only because it plays on or references human beings’ baser instincts. It’s a joke about mean-spiritedness.) It cost him in that primary, and it is right to point out that he should avoid making the same mistake again. But it was a mistake of communication more than of aggression. I understand if people think that his tone exposed an arrogance that he may indeed possess. (I would imagine most presidents struggle with character flaws along those lines.) And, again, Obama is responsible for what he puts across.
But that particular moment, which still gets talked about so often, I think gets talked about wrong.