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PR Gurus Assess Obama's 'Punch Drunk' TV Moment

Barack Obama on CBS
Steve Kroft interviews President Obama for "60 Minutes" in the Oval Office.

Should President Obama be laughing right now?

The most memorable moment of the president's interview on "60 Minutes" Sunday night came when reporter Steve Kroft asked, "Are you punch drunk?" That came after Obama, in what could otherwise be deemed a nearly flawless interview, inexplicably chuckled as he talked about the disaster that is the nation's economy. (Watch video of the interview.)

We asked some of Washington's savviest public relations strategists to weigh in on what they thought of the president's "gallows humor," as he dubbed it. Here's what they had to say:

Rich Masters of Qorvis Communications, who is a Democrat: "The interview was nearly 30 minutes long and the 'punch drunk' segment lasted about 30 seconds, I think it's ridiculous that 30 seconds would come to define an entire interview. That said, in modern public relations those 30 seconds can be the most important if the 'pack' of journalists inside the Beltway focus on them, since most Americans will only watch the reviews of the interview and not the interview itself.

"Is it right to laugh when millions of Americans are mad, sad and unable to find work? Yes, if it's done correctly and I think his laughter at the absurdity of AIG bonuses to the failed 'best and brightest' was appropriate. The president has a good bit of smart-ass in him like most Americans and he could either be mad and blustery about it or he could use ironic humor to poke at the absurdity of the situation we are in. Americans want their presidents to be calm and cheerful in the face of crisis and I think he is accomplishing that. Just so long as he leaves the lame Special Olympics jokes at home."

Marina Ein of Ein Communications, who leans right but has defended many a high-powered Democrat: "Humor is certain to make the laid-off workers, 401K reduced-retirees and Madoff-scammed feel much better! NOT! We don't need a comic-in-chief we need a commander-in-chief! Maybe Favreau is no longer writing his material!"

Jim McCarthy of Counterpoint Strategies, a non-political strategist who represents corporate titans: "Yes, the laughter was off key but it's a great example of how seductive the press can be and how easy it is for even the most polished speakers to let their guard down. If the interview had been conducted by a more obvious adversary, I'm sure Obama would have stayed sharp throughout. But that's the point -- they are all adversaries.

"For as much as I dislike his policies I've been very impressed with Obama's poise and delivery during interviews. But in a perverse way, that confidence actually sets him up for the gotcha punch that last night's interview delivered. He may seem poised but, look, he can't keep a straight face! He appears serious but, stop the presses, he may be in over his head! That counter-intuitive frame can trip up just about anyone and it's one of the cheapest tricks in journalism.

"Overall I thought he came off very well last night and I somehow doubt that the American public will psychoanalyze the minor laughter gaffes as much as the Beltway crowd will. My only advice would be a PR method that the Vatican uses called an 'advocatus diaboli.' As practice for an interview, have a staffer play the role of the devil (in this case, the press) and have a sharp colloquy on the image vulnerabilities that are currently being perceived. It's tempting for the White House to become a cloister of yes men but what they need most right now is an appointed naysayer."

Unnamed Democratic political public relations specialist: "While Obama is gifted in so many ways, humor is not of them. Whether it was Leno on Thursday or '60 minutes' last night, humor is not something that is he seems to be comfortable with, he does not come across as a funny guy. We are only blessed with so many gifts. Obama has many, humor isn't one of them."

And the Sleuth welcomes your comments, especially from those of you - and we know there are lots - who are in the world of communications and public relations. We'll do a follow-up posting picking the best of the (non-abusive and thoughtful) comments. Real names and affiliations preferred though if you insist, we'll respect your anonymity.

By Mary Ann Akers  |  March 23, 2009; 2:59 PM ET
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"The most memorable moment of the president's interview on '60 Minutes' Sunday night came when reporter Steve Kroft asked, 'Are you punch drunk?'..."

The most memorable...?

It's interesting, you know, the things that people choose to find most important in life.

Posted by: CalD | March 23, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I think Pres. Obama was struck by the absurdity of our economic maelstrom that was caused by the same people we now must bailout. It is a laughable situation that is simultaneously infuriating - as if we just fell into a huge mudpuddle and are now covered in mud.

At the same time, Obama frequently disarms difficult situations/questions by smiling and laughing. It is a highly effective way of marginalizing critics and he is a master of the technique.

Posted by: Fairfax3 | March 23, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Just think how the press would be treating this is Bush made the same comments both on Leno and 60 minutes.

Posted by: sales7 | March 23, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I was a bit appalled by Steve Kroft lecturing the President about Afghanistan. Mr Kroft was supposed to be interviewing him, not teaching Foreign Policy 101. How arrogant....

Posted by: bookhall1 | March 23, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Pres. Obama is amused at the irony of what he found when he got into office. That's why he was chuckling. Not at the unemployed Americans, bad economy, etc. We know how hard he is trying to implement policies that will spur employment. What he said next after that "laughter" gives us an idea why he was laughing. Pres. Obama stated that during the campaign, he and his advisers were prepared for a difficult "Iraq" problem. At the end of 2008, the economy imploded/exploded in our faces and there he was, he had to come up with something spectacular in a hurry to mend the economy. Pres. Obama is the right person to lead our country; he is calm, he does not panic, he believes that he can "think" his way out of our problems.

Posted by: mstratas | March 23, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

"Inexplicably chuckled?" Did you watch the interview?

Posted by: nodebris | March 23, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: lowercaselarry | March 23, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

What I think is really funny is comments like that made by the first democrat quoted here.

IF this was Bush who laughed that way about the economic crisis, his comments would be completely different.

In the new age of "journalism", it is no longer what someone does, but WHO does it.

Anything Bush did was bad, anything Obama does is good. When he does something dumb, the media rushes in to explain it away.

The mainstream media is now just an extension of the Obama public relations team!

Posted by: heathergreeneyes | March 23, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Thanks so much for your efforts to portray Obama as some kind of laughing fool.
There is no story unless the echo chamber picks it up and re broadcasts it.

Posted by: black971 | March 23, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

The most memorable moment of the president's interview on "60 Minutes" ....

Did you actually SEE the interview?! If so, this statement says more about the press corps' obsession with trivia than anything out of Obama's mouth.

This was a response to a trivial, dumb question by Croft. Frankly, I thought the most memorable aspect of the interview was in the president's refutation of all things Dick Cheney and his anti-constitutional and illegal activities.

The fact that the press is obsessing about some laughter rather than doing a decent job of covering the revelations about torture, Guantanamo, etc. speaks volumes.

Posted by: decotodd | March 23, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

We the people are getting shafted every which way in this economic downturn. But our illustrious representatives in the news media can't focus on that, can they? I could care less if the president comes across as funny. Is he doing his job? That's all I care about.

The press corp must be full of well-heeled (and well-insured!) folks who don't have to worry about lost jobs, foreclosures or lack of health insurance. Lucky them!

Posted by: gillyann24 | March 23, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

There's no arguing about taste...or about humor, it seems. Or rather there's no agreeing about them.

I find Obama's gallows humor wry, appealing, disarming. An earlier example (conveyed by E.J. Dionne) is candidate Obama's campaign comment to staff as economic woes loomed ominously to greet the electoral winner. Evidently Obama offered a comment to the effect that it was "still possible to throw this thing."

Posted by: FirstMouse1 | March 23, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Must be that the dumocrat in chief didn't have his trusty teleprompter with him. So, he looked like the nitwit he really is.

Posted by: LarryG62 | March 23, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

I am continually struck by the sheer idiocy of pundits and commentators like Ms. Akers, who think their job is to find the most trivial and inane moments in an interview such as this one and drive home to the dumb American people how profoundly important they are. What was "inexplicable" about his chuckles? Did you SEE the interview? Would you have even made this the focus of your commentary if you Drudge-Politico hadn't decided it was the story of the day?

This country is hopeless, not because there are people who hate this president--they have every right to feel and express whatever they want--but because our media is so vapid, stupid, and trivial, that they REFUSE to focus on the major issues facing this country.

Posted by: brucek1 | March 23, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

i thought it was refreshing to see a president make the very best of a nasty mess that he has inherited. i find his sense of humor to be stress relieving to say the least. i thing that what bothers many pundits is that they are now being intellectually challenged by a president that actually posseses an I.Q. and tosses up a challenge to those who were forced to "sleep" through the bush administration doing nothing more than attempting to unravel the mangled sentences and "isims" that our GOOD KING GEORGE tortured us with for eight long years. those who can laugh at danger and threats are those most capable of maintaining a "cool and calm" dimeanor when crises arise. as in the "special olympics" joke, would you throw a pie at a stand-up comic for telling a humorous, humor-related joke? no? then why our president? have we become so droll, cynical and otherwise petty that we cannot understand even ourselves let alone a smart man whom posseses a sharp wit?

Posted by: wa_idaho_lonewolf | March 23, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

"The mainstream media is now just an extension of the Obama public relations team!"
Spoken like someone who has just awakened from an eight year coma. Welcome back, and try to keep up.
There were plenty of instances of Bush doing things quite similarly. They were, by and large, simply ignored by "the press."

Posted by: StrangelyEnough | March 23, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

If you think this "interview" was unscripted you're stupid enough to have voted for Obozzo.

Just like the so called debates where each candidate knows the questions weeks in advance; Obummers handlers are not going to let this imbecile near a microphone unless they can put a teleprompter in front of him.

Unlike EVERY president before him, Obysmal does not greet a troop of girl scouts at the white house with reading Hello, Welcome" from a teleprompter.

Posted by: Bcamp55 | March 23, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Obama is sharp, informed and thoughtful, as even his wing nut detractors admit, except the ones who see nothing redeeming in anybody not cheerleading with the Limbaugh band. Throughout the interview the president commented thoughtfully and with insight, values and intelligence on so many topics.
So he chuckled at the awful mess the Bush/Cheney/Rove era left behind for him to deal with - it is a pretty funny thing, if you understand why he chuckled. Bush was always smart cracking and being frat boy funny, but then he had no other way to fill the time. As a business independent, I see the amazing contrast between the two.
The press should look for substance, not controversy, as the public is sick of the trivialities and mistakes that poor reporting has enabled and helped bring us to where we sadly are now. Obama, get another broom for the mess continues to grow and George left early to snap some towels at Dick.

Posted by: enough3 | March 23, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

So he's a chucklehead, so what? In his case he's simply trying to deflect discomfort and personal anxieties while under interrogation. Bush had a strange sense of humor too, and always gave the impression that no one enjoyed his humor more than he did himself.

Posted by: nowanna1 | March 23, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I watched the interview, and did not notice the "chuckle". I was shocked when Steve Kroft said something about it. It came off like he was looking for a "gotcha" moment. I think of it like most of us laugh when we talk about Bush, but we really are horrified by what he did to this country.

Posted by: jwald1 | March 23, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

"Are you punch drunk?" What kind of remark is that? I'm surprised Obama even gave a response.

Posted by: lewnan | March 23, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

Saw the interview ... I noticed the chuckle right before Kroft mentioned it. I thought it wasn't the most appropriate thing, but ...

Someone mentioned above that Bush would have been crucified in the media had he done the same thing. I think the difference is that if you listed to the rest of the interview, Obama clearly had a grasp on all the issues. So I think he came off as "I know all the problems, but I'm not going to let them get me".

I rarely got that sense from Bush, except immediately after 9/11. So his laughing and informality (nicknames, etc.) came off as a guy who didn't know what was going on, but at least he was liked.

If you were offended, I could see your point. But it wasn't that big a deal.

Posted by: tgaylord1999 | March 23, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Hey I've got an idea, why don't we fire him along with Geithner. Doesn't the neo-con media have anything else better to do? I guess this is pay-back for Rush lame-brain.

Posted by: HemiHead66 | March 23, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Another example of the "Liberal Media" being "in the tank" for Obama. What a crock of s*it! The guy was handed buckets of it by Bush and the Republicans, and now they're screaming that he hasn't cleaned up their mess yet?? Put the blame where it matters, let the guy we hired to clean it up get on with the job.

Maybe if the "Liberal" press had been on the ball we wouldn't be in the mess we're in.

Posted by: thebobbob | March 23, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Obama's intense laughter was certainly not what you'd expect from a president. Its hard to imagine what that was all about.
It does make you wonder if maybe he was high, or something.

Posted by: ohioan | March 23, 2009 10:31 PM | Report abuse

it was a 'Socialist Snicker'

Posted by: JWx2 | March 23, 2009 10:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm not an Obama fan and I didn't vote for him. But, I am pro-union and pro-national healthcare so I do support part of his agenda. Plus, I think Bush was a horrible President so I'm not in the tank for the Republicans.

I saw the interview and I laughed right along with Obama. The situation on Wall Street is so obscene that if you don't laugh about you'd have to cry. I saw nothing inappropriate about his laugh and was surprised by Kroft's comments.

But, I do think the reason Obama is susceptible to these types of things is partially his own fault. He seemed a bit too Holier Than Thou to me during the campaign and his supporters spoke about him in almost reverential terms. When you do that people will eventually start asking tough questions.

Posted by: Tom22 | March 24, 2009 12:15 AM | Report abuse

I have asked myself how it can be that President Obama can relish a clamor of difficulties that has begun to soar like a Beethoven symphony. And then I thought of Theodore Roosevelt. He was a man who had the same preternatural ability to dance with the devil and say, "I'll lead". But T.R. was ultimately a disappointed man. He never faced a challenge the equal of his abilities as Obama has from day one. But if anyone is enjoying Obama's run more than Obama himself, it is T.R. up in his heaven, saying with relish "Bully! Bully!".

Posted by: cpenoip07 | March 24, 2009 1:03 AM | Report abuse

Isn't there any important news to report? What a waste of ink.

Posted by: joyce5021 | March 24, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

To all of you who were offended by his laughter, SO WHAT!! Anyone in their right mind would laugh, afterall, if you you'll cry and worry.

As for how slow the turn around is taking, well let's see he's been in office a little over 60 days, it took exactly 8 years to get us here...If he was expected to turn all of that around so soon, then maybe we should think of him in reverential terms.

Since it appears that only a higher power could clean up this mess.

President Obama, keep doing the best you can, I just ask that you follow your own mind set when getting advice from your financial wizards.

I'm tired if bailing out big money industry
when it is all said and done, who is going to bail out the hard-wrking taxpayers, who keep picking up the tabs.

I'll keep and you in my prayers, forge ahead.

Posted by: DEM0384 | March 24, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

As someone famous once said, life is too important to take seriously.
So Obama laughed ... so what. You chuckleheads need to lighten up, or at least crawl back in your hole and lick your imagined wounds until the next humorless Republican is elected.

Posted by: kernel85 | March 24, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

THIS is the most memorable moment????? What is going on with the Press...he was laughing at the absurdity of the situation, not at people suffering and I'm sure you know that...but it's a better story the other way,isn't it.
I have great faith in our country and the President to make it through this crisis...but it seems as though the Washington Press Corps just wants to draw blood. I'm still wondering where you guys were in the lead up to the Iraq war.
I don't mind critical stories about President Obama...but let them be on the issues...that shouldn't be too much to ask!

Posted by: JaneCastle | March 24, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Ackers is one of those reporters, so common today, whose inner editor reflexively strips all situations of their substance. (Her observations around the newsroom -- e.g., "Drudge is long overdue for a Pulitzer" and "Watergate? What a yawn!" -- are accompanied by sea of consensual head nodding.)

I'm not sure if she's mastered the remaining essential skills of her profession (namely, the ability to transcribe official statements in a mindless, factcheck-free manner, and the willingness to capitulate with enthusiasm and spineless flexibility to right-wing mau-mauing and bloviation). If she has, then she is the archetypal soul of the 21st-century American journalist.

Posted by: idealist61 | March 24, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Personally I don't like Obama or his policies. Having said that I can understand the laughter segment. I myself, in uncomfortable moments or times of stress have found myself laughing involuntarily. I figure it must have something to do with our mind's attempt at dealing with stress. So, even though I don't agree with much that he says or does, I can certainly understand that he must be stressed with the various, very serious problems our country is facing.

J. Michael Warner
The Political Coffeehouse

Posted by: jmichaelwarner | March 24, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Where do people get the idea that Obama doesn't do humor? He's a natural, with a natural smile, totally at ease, comfortable with himself, infectious humor. What's not to like?

Posted by: redneck2 | March 24, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Not punch drunk. Just way out of his depth.

Posted by: zjr78xva | March 24, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

King Obama's misplaced giggle is just a chink in his facade. His life's work has been and continues to be "Manager of (his) facade". Since he has no public character other than his "managed facade" these chinks will be the only insights we will get into his true character--his core beliefs. So far his gaffs reveal an insecure narcissist who takes himself seriously, but others (and their struggles) humorously. And why not?--this is what narcissists do: so busy managing their image that all else is secondary...their own fragile self image must be continually propped up; they must continually slip back to behaviours in which the greatest admiration from others is (was) obtained. Hence the continual need for Obama to revert back to campaigning..his greatest source of admiration. So we have had as presidents, adulterers, a sex addict and who knows what else--? -- and now a narcissist. How long before a real person leads us?
pr consultant, reno nv.

Posted by: ssjackson | March 24, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

"hey May-Ann whats your game now can anybody play?" Apparently so. Folks with little or now understanding of human interaction beyond their own prejudices and cohorts seem to project this bias w/o introspection. Even I [a person in his late 50s recognizes the tenor of Obamas presentation of self to be that of a 'younger, 'cooler' person. not the sophistication of a JFK, the maudlin self-pity of RMN, the dementia-dreaming of RWR, the Babbit-like backslapping of Clinton, or the moronic GWB. i would suggest a good course in watching films or theater before becoming a critic.

Posted by: tedri50 | March 24, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe the punch-drunk Rich Masters used the word "lame" to describe the Special Olympics comment. How thougtless, he should be lynched by all the "tres sensitiv" Republicans on this blog. I would laugh at the prospect, but this is too serious. = P

Posted by: sprice1 | March 24, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

"A man who cannot laugh at himself is not a man who can be trusted."

Posted by: FirstMouse1 | March 24, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

My 83 year old uncle said"if you cannot laugh at yourself you might as well hang it up".
I laugh when people fall;bang their head on an open cupboard or stub their toe. I also ask are you okay & can I help you. Why do I laugh, I do not know but many family members do the same thing.

Posted by: katerinaDeligiannis | March 24, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Jim McCarthy. Obama is and was susceptible to the charms of the media - and Kroft is very, very good at setting this faux comfort level. Obama playing right into his trap. The laughing is a part of his need to charm; sort of what George Clooney does and can't help. But that doesn't excuse how out of place it was. I found it very undisciplined and tacky of him and it immediately put me off. Me - a huge admirer!

Posted by: Marieme | March 25, 2009 12:24 AM | Report abuse

It is frustrating how partisanship skews the perspective of otherwise critical thinkers. Many of these posts reflect that. Obama supporters dismiss this incident -- they would have been aghast if George Bush had chuckled on TV amid a recession. Obama opponents seize on the situation to support their caricature of him as either a socialist or at best incompetent. I particularly find interesting the comment by Rich Masters of Qorvis Communications, who is a Democrat: "The interview was nearly 30 minutes long and the 'punch drunk' segment lasted about 30 seconds, I think it's ridiculous that 30 seconds would come to define an entire interview." What communications professional would be surprised that 30 seconds can define a 30-minute interview? That was clearly Masters' partisanship speaking. Why can't we set aside our partisan perspectives and portray the president's laughter for what it was? A serious public relations gaffe that undermines his credibility as a leader. His laughing does not mean he lacks empathy for those who have lost their jobs or is insincere in his efforts to revive the economy. It does, however, seem a sign of weakness from an excellent candidate who is now a struggling president in the face of an admittedly vexing economic crisis.

Posted by: skipper888 | March 25, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Brendan Gupta - Inside the Beltway

Some of the experts in your story Sleuth are lame people. Obama was elected because he was so many things to so many people. He's funny, he's serious, he's smart.

The last P.R. expert you quoted said Obama cannot be funny. Remember when Obama said "pretty nice diggs" referring to the White House? Hey! I laughed.

Posted by: guptabrendan | March 25, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

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