Obama amuses us again, but why can't British politicians do humour?

The US president's star turn at the White House Correspondents' Dinner is a reminder of how far removed such comedy is from our political world.

Standing in front of a hall full of the nation’s most notable journalists - and CNN’s Piers Morgan - President Barack Obama had a confession. "I look in the mirror and I have to admit,” he said glumly, "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be."

No one, of course, ran to write up a front page story, or tweet their amazement. This was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at Washington, D.C.’s Hilton Hotel, an annual event where the sitting president and a chosen comedian (this year it was Conan O’Brien’s second stint after performing in 1995) get to whip out a few jokes in front of tables filled with journalists and celebrities alike. The aforementioned Piers Morgan was seated, somewhat bafflingly, with Gerard Butler and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. 
 
Obama is known to be particularly good at telling a few jokes. In 2011, he demolished Donald Trump, who was then thinking about running for president. Obama sarcastically said Trump once had the difficult decision of who to fire on The Apprentice: Lil John, Meatloaf or Gary Busey? "These are the kind the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night," he revealed, to raucous approval and an embarrassed Trump.
 
What is striking for Britons, especially when we see Obama playing Daniel Day-Lewis playing himself in a mock-film trailer, is how far removed such a comedic stunt is from our political world. While Obama’s lines may be well researched by witty speech writers, he delivers them with ease and he is not the first US President to do so. The US has a political system that is far more fluid and diverse than ours and the anti-intellectual bent in American politics and culture embraces elected officials who don’t need a good degree but must, crucially, be down to earth. 
 
Can anyone imagine David Cameron reeling off jokes with such aplomb? Even when Ed Miliband delivered his best line – "In the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, can the Prime Minister tell us, is there anything he could organise in a brewery?" – it was said rather staidly. Worse still, Cameron could have had a quick, witty response but instead said he would have a party to celebrate Ed Balls staying in his job. It was car crash stuff, but it was typical. Prime Ministers are just not fun or funny: Gordon Brown was grumpy, Tony Blair was smug and John Major was dull. Many of Margaret Thatcher's colleagues claimed she had a brilliant wit but if you listened to the long list of Thatcher anecdotes told over the ten days of national mourning, she came across as cutting and self-inflated. Even Charles Moore, her biographer, admitted she didn’t understand one-liners or double entendres. 
 
What this boils down to is how we see our leaders. Richard Hofstadter 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, spoke of the country’s distrust of the aloof intellectual, preferring the more practical and patriotic intelligence of those not in tune with elite culture. He referred particularly to the 1952 and 1956 Presidential Elections, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower overcame the academic Adlai Stevenson: a practical, patriotic man overcoming the narrowness of the armchair intellect. In one particularly relevant line, Hofstadter notes how the US education system breeds an out of touch and unfunny type of American: "There is an element of moral overstrain and a curious lack of humour among American educationalists which will perhaps always remain a mystery to those more worldly minds that are locked out of their mental universe."
 
Indeed, while Obama may be an intellect and aloof, he still has a great connection with voters that created a grass-roots campaign in 2007 that propelled him to the presidency. Just like most Americans wanted a beer with Bush, most want to hang out with Obama – and Michelle, of course – because they’re relatable and 'cool'. And talking of aloof, Obama even mocks that side of him – as he did in Washington on Saturday night. Thatcher may have been able to deliver some decent lines, but she was never self-deprecating. 
 
What Hofstadter said about US education breeding individuals with a curious lack of humour rings true for Britain, a nation where we prefer to have aloof intellects running the country. The Americans like their leaders practical and pithy: remember Clinton cracking up with Yeltsin and Reagan delivering his "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," line to Walter Mondale in 1984. 
 
Can we Britons ever break this vicious cycle of unfunny and characterless prime ministers? I think I know what the Mayor of London’s answer would be.
 
Barack Obama during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on April 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496