Following Politico's lead, media fixate on Obama's "awkward laughter" in 60 Minutes interview

››› ››› ANDREW WALZER & ANDREW SEIFTER

Echoing a March 22 Politico article that was hyped by the Drudge Report, the March 23 editions of Today, Morning Joe, MSNBC Live, and Fox & Friends all featured segments on President Obama's laughter during a 60 Minutes interview. The segments are reminiscent of the media's echoing Drudge by seizing on Hillary Clinton's laugh as a new subject of attention following Clinton's talk show appearances in September 2007.

Echoing a March 22 Politico article that was hyped by the Drudge Report, the March 23 editions of several morning news shows featured segments on President Obama's laughter during a March 22 interview with Steve Kroft on CBS' 60 Minutes. The segments, which aired on NBC's Today, MSNBC's Morning Joe and MSNBC Live, and Fox News' Fox & Friends, are reminiscent of the media's echoing the Drudge Report, among others, by seizing on then-Sen. Hillary Clinton's laugh as a new subject of attention following Clinton's appearance on all five Sunday political talk shows in September 2007. Whereas commentators speculated whether Clinton's laughter -- which some described as a "cackle" -- was evidence of her "calculating" nature, according to the Politico article, Obama's "awkward laughter highlighted an issue Obama has faced dating back to the campaign, a sense that he sometimes is too 'cool' and detached to fully grasp the public anxiety over mounting job losses and economic worries." Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, however, challenged her co-hosts' fixation on the topic stating: "I don't care who's laughing. ... I want to look at the plan and really assess it fairly. Tone is one thing; we'll see what the action is."

In a March 23 blog post on MSNBC's First Read, NBC chief White House correspondent and political director Chuck Todd, deputy political director Mark Murray, and political researcher Domenico Montanaro credited Matt Drudge with successfully "reduc[ing]" the 60 Minutes interview into a "gaffe[]" about "whether or not President Obama is laughing too much." They wrote:

*** Judge Drudge: If you're asking yourself how some of the lengthy Obama interviews -- like Leno or "60 Minutes" -- get reduced into gaffes about the Special Olympics or whether or not President Obama is laughing too much, look no farther than Drudge. As he did during the general election, he has been working overtime to paint the current president in the most negative light. So far, with Obama's approval rating in high 50s, low 60s, it hasn't worked -- yet.

The Obama-laughter story took the following course:

  • The Politico article, titled, "Kroft to Obama: Are you punch-drunk?" was published on the Politico website on March 22. From the article, by reporters Craig Gordon and Jonathan Martin:

President Barack Obama said he believes the global financial system remains at risk of implosion with the failure of Citigroup or AIG, which could touch off "an even more destructive recession and potentially depression."

His remarks came in a "60 Minutes" interview in which he was pressed by Steve Kroft for laughing and chuckling several times while discussing the perilous state of the world's economy.

"You're sitting here. And you're -- you are laughing. You are laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, 'I mean, he's sitting there just making jokes about money --' How do you deal with -- I mean: explain ..." Kroft asked at one point.

"Are you punch-drunk?" Kroft said.

"No, no. There's gotta be a little gallows humor to get you through the day," Obama said, with a laugh.

[...]

Even his awkward laughter highlighted an issue Obama has faced dating back to the campaign, a sense that he sometimes is too "cool" and detached to fully grasp the public anxiety over mounting job losses and economic worries.

Still, Obama made clear that he's afraid the nation hasn't seen the worst of the economic crisis.

obama-drudge

  • During the first segment of the March 23 edition of Fox & Friends, the show's co-hosts followed Politico's and Drudge's lead. While on-screen text read, "Obama gets grilled; Laughing off the tough economy," co-host Steve Doocy said, "Meanwhile, President Obama yukking it up again, this time not on [The Tonight Show with Jay] Leno but with Steve Kroft -- laughing about the dire straits of our economy. Anyway, we're going to show you what he was laughing about and whether or not you think that's funny as well." Co-host Brian Kilmeade then said, "It was strange." Doocy added, "It was odd."
  • During the March 23 edition of Morning Joe, after airing Kroft's "punch-drunk" question and Obama's response, co-host Joe Scarborough said, "Wow. Willie? What was that? Did that strike you as strange?" Co-host Willie Geist replied, "Before Steve Kroft asked him what he was laughing at, I turned to my wife about 15 minutes earlier in the interview, and I said, 'What is he laughing at?' " Geist also said Obama's laughter during the CBS interview was "odd," and both he and Scarborough agreed it was "strange." Brzezinski, however, said "[y]ou guys are hypocrites" and added: "I think you guys are getting a little picky. I could care less whether or not he laughs." After Geist interjected, "I agree," Brzezinski continued: "I want to know what the plan is. [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner has a plan for the banks today. ... The president speaks to the nation tomorrow night in a prime-time news conference, opening himself up for questions. I say we wait and see what happens there." Moments later, Brzezinski added: "I don't care who's laughing or doing what or being on Leno or doing brackets. I want to look at the plan and really assess it fairly. Tone is one thing; we'll see what the action is."
  • During a later segment on Morning Joe, CNBC host Donny Deutsch said of Obama's 60 Minutes interview, in part: "I wasn't quite sure where the meat on the bone was last night, and he had this kind of weird laugh, this nerv -- it was the first time I did not give him an A-plus-plus for his performance." Geist replied: "I want to show the clip that Donnie is talking about right now. ... There was some substance in the interview, obviously, but he had this strange, nervous tic almost -- where he was laughing at strange places." Geist then aired a cropped version of Obama's 60 Minutes interview which included only the responses in which Obama laughed and the portion in which Kroft asked, "Are you punch-drunk?"

Following the clip, Brzezinski asked Deutsch, "All right, Donnie, how is this coming off? Because I guess you could argue that that's -- look, that there's a chorus of criticism for all this stuff ... and [Obama's] laughing it off." Deutsch replied, in part: "We've got to be careful we don't become a nation of spitball throwers. ... You know, obviously, when a guy is out there speaking in the media, every once in a while there is going to be a nervous laugh. There is going to be a misstep. As far as his public persona, there is nobody better. You've got to give it to this guy." Deutsch later added: "He can't win either way. ... When he was out there being dire and saying, hey, look, I've got to get this through, we're in deep doo-doo -- 'Oh my god, he's scaring us.' So, you know, we're in a media world right now where that office it's hard to win either way. I still give him good grades overall, though." Asked to comment moments later, New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley stated: "Well, you know, when I see a politician do a TV interview, and they laugh, they're forcing their laugh; it seems like it's not totally natural. You know, it says to me that they had a conversation with their people, and they said people want you to lighten up a little bit, they think you're grim." Crowley added, "I think part of this is a psychological thing the Obama administration has been trying to do, which is to keep people from freaking out."

  • During the March 23 edition of NBC's Today, while discussing the interview with Todd, co-host Meredith Vieira said, "[Obama] was talking about the economic crisis, and at several points he chuckled, and Kroft actually called him out on that." After Vieira aired Kroft's "punch-drunk" question and Obama's response, Todd said:

TODD: You know, this has been a problem for President Obama when he was candidate Obama, this criticism that sometimes he doesn't seem to show that he feels the pain of what's going on in America, you know, whether it was that criticism of when he described folks in Pennsylvania about clinging to their guns and religion. So sometimes he gets a little sort of Zen-like and above it all, and I think that's where this tone comes from. He also was traveling a lot last week, and as 60 -- Steve Kroft said, he may have been a little punch-drunk and just a little tired.

  • However, during the 9 a.m. ET hour of the March 23 edition of MSNBC Live, Todd said, referring to the interview, "[I]n a moment like that, sometimes I think people can get overly critical at a moment like that." When asked by anchor Contessa Brewer, "Do you get the sense from the White House, Chuck, that the president is having trouble finding the right tone?" Todd responded: "[T]hey believe he has struck the right tone, that this is one of those cases where we inside the Beltway or the folks on the Internet are trying to create a -- create a problem where they believe there isn't one."

From the March 23 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

DOOCY: Meanwhile, President Obama yukking it up again, this time not on Leno but with Steve Kroft -- laughing about the dire straits of our economy. Anyway, we're going to show you what he was laughing about and whether or not you think that's funny as well. Brian.

KILMEADE: It was strange.

DOOCY: It was odd.

From the March 23 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

[begin video clip]

KROFT: You're sitting here, and you're laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, I mean, he's sitting there and just making jokes about money? How do you deal with it? I mean, explain the -- your mood and your laughter. Are you punch-drunk?

OBAMA: Well, there's got to be -- no, no. There's got to be a little gallows humor to get you through the day.

[end video clip]

BRZEZINSKI: It is Monday morning and 6 o'clock on the East Coast.

SCARBOROUGH: Wow. Willie? What was that? Did that strike you as strange?

GEIST: Before Steve Kroft asked him what he was laughing at, I turned to my wife about 15 minutes earlier in the interview, and I said, "What is he laughing at?"

SCARBOROUGH: My wife turned to me and said, "Why does he keep laughing?" And she's the one that always levels me out.

GEIST: I find it odd.

BRZEZINSKI: Oh my god. You know --

SCARBOROUGH: That was strange.

BRZEZINSKI: You guys are hypocrites.

SCARBOROUGH: You didn't even watch it last night, did you?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, I was flying in, but I've seen clips.

SCARBOROUGH: OK. Well, it's strange.

GEIST: No, it was strange, Mika. It was.

BRZEZINSKI: I'd like to see more.

GEIST: There was a lot of substance in the interview. It was a fine interview. But he has a nervous laughing tic that was -- it was odd.

BRZEZINSKI: OK.

GEIST: Yeah.

BRZEZINSKI: We'll -- we'll talk. I -- I don't know. I think you guys are getting a little picky. I could care less whether or not he laughs.

GEIST: I agree.

BRZEZINSKI: I want to know what the plan is.

GEIST: Yeah, it's just strange.

BRZEZINSKI: Tim Geithner has a plan for the banks today.

SCARBOROUGH: I want to know who is going to win the NCAA and whether his final 64 picks are correct.

BRZEZINSKI: The president speaks to the nation tomorrow night in a primetime news conference, opening himself up for questions. I say we wait and see what happens there.

SCARBOROUGH: I agree.

GEIST: I'm with you.

SCARBOROUGH: I judge a president not by how he does on 60 Minutes, but by how he does on Leno. But do we not have any drums around here? It's -- the optics are really, really strange. And a lot of the op-eds are touching on that, that this is -- from Peggy Noonan to Frank Rich, this weekend, on both sides of the spectrum. A lot of people are saying that he doesn't have the tone right. He's unfocused. Peggy talked about the incredible lightness of being, and Frank talked on the other side of it. This is -- it's getting unsettling.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, we should look at those, but Tim Geithner has a piece in today's Wall Street Journal laying out the bank plan, and, you know, I think that we need to -- we need to actually look at it. I don't care who's laughing or doing what or being on Leno or doing brackets. I want to look at the plan and really assess it fairly. Tone is one thing; we'll see what the action is.

SCARBOROUGH: I agree with you.

BRZEZINSKI: Oh, come on --

SCARBOROUGH: Willie, I wish you and I --

BRZEZINSKI: All right, I'm going to do this --

SCARBOROUGH: -- had the substance of Mika Brzezinski.

BRZEZINSKI: Oh, shut up.

SCARBOROUGH: All right, let's go to Mika with the news.

BRZEZINSKI: You are so bad.

[...]

SCARBOROUGH: Donnie, how did the president do last night on 60 Minutes?

DEUTSCH: Not as great as he has been doing. You know, I'm one of these guys that believes he can chew and walk at the same -- chew gum and walk at the same time. I don't have the issues you have about him picking brackets out there and being on Leno. I think that shows a guy in charge. You're a CEO. You don't want to be sweating. I think he can, once again, talk basketball for five minutes and still, at the same time, solve our toxic assets problem.

SCARBOROUGH: As you know, we both know that it's about image.

DEUTSCH: Yes.

SCARBOROUGH: Does somebody that's laid off in Kansas, who may be predisposed to be angry at the government, want to see their president do that. I agree with you.

DEUTSCH: Once again, a president at any moment can't be doing everything that makes all 300 million people happy. Having said that, the 60 Minutes last night I found a strange choice. I thought he was great on Leno the other night, notwithstanding that misstep in terms of the Special Olympics. He's got a press conference Tuesday. I wasn't quite sure where the meat on the bone was last night, and he had this kind of weird laugh, this nerv -- it was the first time I did not give him an A-plus-plus for his performance.

GEIST: Well, I want to show the clip that Donnie is talking about right now. It's something that struck us earlier in the show. There was some substance in the interview, obviously, but he had this strange, nervous tic almost --

DEUTSCH: Yeah.

GEIST: -- where he was laughing at strange places. Here is the president.

[begin video clip]

OBAMA: You've got a whole host of players, all of whom may have a completely different solution, right?

OBAMA: Folks in Congress, as well as the American people, would like to fix the banks without spending any money.

OBAMA: The only thing less popular than putting money into banks is putting money into the auto industry.

KROFT: You're sitting here, and you're laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, I mean, he's sitting there just making jokes about money? How do you deal with it? I mean, explain the -- your mood and your laughter. Are you punch-drunk?

OBAMA: Well, there's got to be -- no, no. There's got to be a little gallows humor to get you through the day.

[end video clip]

BRZEZINSKI: All right, Donnie, how is this coming off? Because I guess you could argue that that's --

DEUTSCH: Look --

DEUTSCH: Come on. You said --

BRZEZINSKI: -- and he's laughing it off.

DEUTSCH: You said something earlier, Mika, that I agree with, and it was Tom Friedman's column. We've got to be careful we don't become a nation of spitball throwers. This is a president that part of his brand is being out there. He -- you know, he's like Reagan. Reagan was great; Reagan did a lot of missteps. There's a difference between Nixon and Reagan, and Bush and Obama. He is a telegenic, media-centric president. He -- and he's a brave president.

As you said earlier, this guy's going on -- taking questions, primetime. Can you imagine our last president doing that? You know, obviously, when a guy is out there speaking in the media, every once in a while there is going to be a nervous laugh. There is going to be a misstep. As far as his public persona, there is nobody better. You've got to give it to this guy -- even you, Joe. Come on, this guy -- I actually thought on Leno the other day --

SCARBOROUGH: I've always said that.

DEUTSCH: And by the way, him being on Leno shows he's in charge. I was a CEO. I ran a multibillion-dollar company. When we were in trouble, the worst thing I could do was hide in my office versus walking around, cracking jokes, because that let my employees know, you know what? He knows everything is OK. It's going to be OK. And that is his job. He's got to be daddy to everybody. I mean, that is reality.

SCARBOROUGH: Michael Crowley?

CROWLEY: Well, you know, when I see a politician do a TV interview, and they laugh, they're forcing their laugh; it seems like it's not totally natural. You know, it says to me that they had a conversation with their people, and they said people want you to lighten up a little bit, they think you're grim. I think part of this is a psychological thing the Obama administration has been trying to do, which is to keep people from freaking out.

You know, you've seen them recently talk stocks up a little bit. [Obama economic adviser] Larry Summers said that stocks are maybe becoming a good value. They've started to get a little more optimistic about the timeframe for the economy to turn around. And I think what Obama is afraid of is that people are really gonna lose hope, which has its own --

DEUTSCH: He can't win either way.

CROWLEY: -- self-fulfilling philosophy.

DEUTSCH: When he was out there being dire and saying, hey, look, I've got to get this through, we're in deep doo-doo --

CROWLEY: Everyone said --

DEUTSCH: -- "Oh my god, he's scaring us."

CROWLEY: Exactly.

DEUTSCH: So, you know, we're in a media world right now where that office it's hard to win either way.

CROWLEY: Right, right.

DEUTSCH: I still give him good grades overall, though.

From the March 23 edition of NBC's Today:

VIEIRA: All right, Chuck. On another matter, last night on 60 Minutes, the president was interviewed by Steve Kroft. He was talking about the economic crisis, and at several points he chuckled, and Kroft actually called him out on that. Let's take a listen.

[begin video clip]

KROFT: You're sitting here and you're laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, I mean, he's sitting there just making jokes about money? How do you deal with it? I mean, explain the -- your mood and your laughter. Are you punch-drunk?

OBAMA: Well, there's got to be -- no, no. There's got to be a little gallows humor to get you through the day.

[end video clip]

VIEIRA: You know, Chuck, some people criticized the president when he was on Leno last Thursday given the serious nature of the situation we're in right now. Now he does this with 60 Minutes. Does he have to watch his tone?

TODD: You know, this has been a problem for President Obama when he was candidate Obama, this criticism that sometimes he doesn't seem to show that he feels the pain of what's going on in America, you know, whether it was that criticism of what happened when he described folks in Pennsylvania about clinging to their guns and religion. So sometimes he gets a little sort of Zen-like and above it all, and I think that's where this tone comes from. He also was traveling a lot last week, and as 60 -- Steve Kroft said, he may have been a little punch-drunk and just a little tired.

VIEIRA: All right, Chuck Todd, thank you very much.

From the 9 a.m. ET hour of the March 23 edition of MSNBC Live:

MONICA NOVOTNY (anchor): President Obama and his team making the media rounds to talk about their plans to save the economy, and Contessa Brewer is live with the politics desk with one interview that may not have gone off as Obama planned, Contessa?

BREWER: Yeah, Monica, the president had this interview with 60 Minutes. His chuckles over serious economic issues seemed to surprise Steve Kroft.

[begin video clip]

OBAMA: I just want to say that the only thing less popular than putting money into banks is putting money into the auto industry.

KROFT: You're sitting here and you're laughing about some of these problems. [...] How do you deal with it? I mean, explain the -- your mood and your laughter. Are you punch-drunk?

OBAMA: Well, there's got to be -- no, no. There's got to be a little gallows humor to get you through the day.

[end video clip]

BREWER: Chuck Todd is chief White House correspondent and political director for NBC News. Do you get the sense from the White House, Chuck, that the president is having trouble finding the right tone?

TODD: Well, I don't think they would -- I think they would take issue with that. I think they believe he has struck the right tone, that this is one of those cases where we inside the Beltway or the folks on the Internet are trying to create a -- create a problem where they believe there isn't one. That said, you know, the president -- and this was this way during the campaign.

You know, he's got this even keel about him to the point where sometimes he seems like -- he got criticized during the campaign for not being touchy-feely enough or not being able to look as if he was understanding the problems of average Americans, and you know, that happened during that whole clinging to the guns and religion comment that he made and some other things just having to do with the economy. He's trying to get better about that.

You see him embracing people at town halls when they start crying and tearing up and, you know, much more Clintonesque, the way Bill Clinton was. So, I think sometimes, you know, he gets a lot of compliments for keeping his cool, and then, in a moment like that, sometimes I think people can get overly critical at a moment like that.

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