The parodies started with a right-wing website, Teleprompterpresident.com. Launched in 2009—and showing a dissipated-looking Barack Obama, cigarette hanging off his lip—blasts video after video of the “teleprompter president” (TOTUS) saying “Uhhh,” and looking emotionally disassociated when not speaking from notes. Obama’s famously composed magnetism is made out to be the illusion of producers, a gullible press and digital cue cards.
Three years later, a set of more mainstream parodists—faced with a president uniquely disinclined to make gaffes, and refusing to put party loyalty before parody opportunity—have also jumped on Obama’s emotional disconnect
Some hit harder on the “Uh-bama part than others, such as the “Saturday Night Live” parody of 2012’s first presidential debate in Denver, Colo. Others, seemingly to express wish fulfillment, dub in a passionate alter ego who speaks for the president’s imagined id. In the recut of “99 Problems,” Jay-Z’s bravado is presented as the underside of Obama’s placidity. In Comedy Central’s “Obama’s Anger Translator” sketches by "Key & Peele," the president’s id is personified by a man named Luther.
Another parody, from Obama impersonator and YouTube celebrity Iman “Alphacat” Crosson, has Obama rapping about giving Osama bin Laden “a permanent, justice-laced Ambien.” Yet another recasts the president’s Democratic National Convention speech as Kanye West’s “I Don’t Like.” And one, which pits the president and Mitt Romney in “an epic rap battle,” is galled by Obama’s prized “kill list” and his failure to close Guantanamo Bay.
The fantasy that surfaces is that Obama will throw off the cool-jazz shtick in favor of seemingly more “authentic” hip-hop boasts and unbridled rage. Indeed, whether or not Kanye West or Samuel L. Jackson—in an Obama ad, “Wake the F—k Up,” sponsored by the Jewish Council on Education and Research—busts out to enliven Obama, or the robotic TOTUS figures hem and haw, the anxiety that informs all these videos is palpable. Where is Obama’s passion? Where is the superhero will.i.am, Hollywood’s Obama Girl and legions of stalkers in the media crushed on in 2008?
There are still many who find Obama’s unflappable manner soothing in anxious times, and who maintain that his convictions and sense of injustice run deep. So which is he: measured and composed or vacuous and passive? Voters will soon decide.
In the meantime, in an attempt to answer this question, many parodists attribute whatever motivation Obama musters to uxoriousness—excessive, blinkered love of his wife. In the SNL debate parody, Obama—woozy with altitude sickness—can think of nothing but what to buy his wife for their anniversary. In a spliced cutaway, the real Michelle Obama looks grim, ferocious.
Uxoriousness is a funny, old-fashioned sin. Ronald Reagan was probably the last president faulted for it. Wife-adoration seems to go hand-in-hand with absent-mindedness. To the dodderer, the wife is both an angelic presence and a GPS—sail and compass. He cannot endure without her. And without shrewdness and peripheral vision the dodderer also seems frankly incapable of skirt chasing or subterfuge.
So where Parody Mitt Romney seems too vain, thick and non-mammalian to cheat, Parody Obama seems too blind. He sees no one but Michelle. But Obama doesn’t evince Reagan’s optimism in these videos. Instead, he shows a depressive’s detachment.
In 2008, David Brooks marveled in the New York Times that in two years “there hasn’t been a moment when [Obama] has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.” Having read about Obama’s emotionally bruising childhood, Brooks expected the president to have “gaping personal needs and hidden wounds,” but instead, Obama struck him as “a homeostasis machine” with a Zen-like gift for psychologically removing himself from circumstances. Brooks wondered whether Obama would be “an island of rationality in a sea of tumult.” Or maybe he’d simply be an island—sill unto immobility, still unto torpor.
It will soon be clear how Obama’s composure has played to both his base and to the undecided. For sure, it’s been a long time since Obama himself—and not his many alter egos—really got voters’ hearts pumping, as he did with the great speeches of his last campaign. The video parodies have captured the part of Obama’ aloofness that’s more vacant than suave.
It’s known that Obama dislikes campaigning. And he himself has joked that he slept through the first debate. Maybe that moment of self-awareness is a sign he’s waking up. Just in time for Election Day.