With Funny or Die appearance, Obama takes selling healthcare reform to its bizarre, logical conclusion

By James Robinson , written on March 11, 2014

From The News Desk

President Obama is determined to deliver his message to millennials in their natural habitat. Today, that habitat was a stilted appearance today on "Between Two Ferns," Funny or Die's Zach Galifianakis-hosted web comedy series.

Obama's "Between Two Ferns" appearance was essentially a plug - toeing the oft-repeated party line that the website works properly now and can assist young people with much-needed access to health insurance - sandwiched between several minutes of the president yukking it up with the famed comedian. The two of them demand to see each other's birth certificate, Obama chides Galifianakis about his weight and Galifianakis asks Obama about whether he's going to build his presidential library in Hawaii or his "home country of Kenya." It's the standard Galifianakis-thing for anyone familiar with his work, but likely highly-confusing for people who are strangers to the joke. Which is the whole point, obviously.

In his time on office, Obama has not been precious about going to strange places in search of a broad audience. He's sat for multiple interviews with former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, sat for some girl talk on the View, showed of his dance moves on Ellenslow jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon to promote student loan reform, taken part in an AMA on Reddit and indulged his penchant for basketball talk, appearing on Bill Simmons' B.S. Report podcast and sitting for an interview with Charles Barkley at the halftime of this year's NBA All Star Game.

On one level, "Between Two Ferns" is an odd choice for an advertisement for healthcare. At multiple occasions in the video, Obama seems close to laughter. Critics were inevitably quick out of the box. “We have to worry about the dignity of the presidency,” former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry told the New York Times. "Instead of playing celebrity, our President should be working on fixing his failed takeover of health care," Tweeted Texas Congressman Randy Weber. At a White House press conference, ABC's Jim Avila asked White House press secretary Jay Carney if the interview had damaged the presidency.

The focus on Funny or Die however, is close in line with with Obama's claim that the ACA will help the many uninsured youths living and working in the United States. The idea is to make health insurance more affordable for people who are working low-wage jobs that don't come with benefits, the types of jobs that are traditionally filled with ranks of unskilled twenty-somethings. Funny or Die's predominantly younger audience, which skews male, is a close fit for this message.

Funny or Die itself has long supported the Affordable Care Act, with Olivia Wilde, Jennifer Hudson and Elizabeth Banks shooting videos to promote it. It isn't the first unconventional partnership for a operation, either. Illinois' own effort partnered with The Onion to promote the Affordable Care Act in state.

Obama's appearance was effective even if awkward. According to Talking Points Memo, Funny or Die was the biggest referrer to By 1 p.m., the video had been viewed 5.5 million times, according to the company's built-in analytics, equivalent nearly to three times the median audience size for CNN.

As has been duly pointed out, Obama is not the first president to go off the traditional political road to find an audience. Richard Nixon appeared on Laugh-In in 1968, Gerald Ford took to Saturday Night Live in 1976, Jimmy Carter talked about having lust in his heart in Playboy, Bill Clinton was on MTV while in office and George W. Bush taped a statement to the troops on Deal or No Deal in 2008.

But few politicians have been as active as Obama in making these types of appearances. The current president's political operation has always relied on finely targeting relevant audience segments and going after them aggressively.

Obama's 2012 re-election effort even turned its back on more traditional ad buying methods of purchasing space next to news programming. In one example, spotlighted in Time at the end of 2012, to reach women under 35 in Miami-Dade county the campaign leveraged its huge pools of voter data and purchased ad space next to Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23. Through ithis metric-driven, data-heavy approach it said it was 14 percent more effective than 2008 in reaching relevant voters over the airwaves.

The Funny or Die move is a logical extension of this. According to Mashable, today's video has roots back in July 2013, when the administration began talking about how to build community out around the Affordable Care Act and met with a group that included comedian Amy Poehler and Jennifer Hudson, alongside reps from YouTube and Funny or Die. Galifianakis met with Valerie Jarrett two months later in September and time was set aside for February 24.

Popular culture savvy has long been an Obama administration weapon. Reportedly, Obama was already familiar with "Between Two Ferns," where it's likely many critics would have had to take to Google to straighten who the big guy with the beard was. The president has long been happy to talk up his fandom of House of Cards, True Detective, Homeland and the Wire for cheap points with younger voters.

With his approval rating among 18-29 year old voters plummeting in the latter half of 2013, the Funny or Die appearance is a calculated attempt to sell healthcare reform to young people and get on the front foot with midterms fast approaching.