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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle