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Politics as Performance: From Obama's Luther to Huckabee's Christ

05/15/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

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As the White House Correspondents' Dinner reliably demonstrates, performance is the new politics. By tapping comedy, drama and other forms of storytelling influencers can access strategies they'd normally never employ.

Consider the recent dinnertime plays that Barack Obama's ran, all to set the record straight on his presidency, set traps for any GOP successor, and put journalists in their places.  Whether delivered directly or through Luther, Obama's brilliant comedian-proxy, Keegan-Michael Key, the president did more agenda-setting in one evening than a dozen serious-minded sit-downs.  Here are some examples:

"Six years into my presidency some people still say I'm arrogant, aloof, condescending. Some people are so dumb."  His play was a counter-intuitive Lantern, the strategy that volunteers a player's shortcomings and one he's loath to run in more serious settings.

"Soon, the first presidential contest will take place, and I for one cannot wait to see who the Koch brothers pick. It's exciting." His line was delivered as a kidding Ping, but it had all the power of a caustic Call Out on the Kochs' use of new election laws.

Obama: "We count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day."  Luther: "And we can count on FOX to terrify old white people with some nonsense!"  This was another masked Call Out, made possible by the venue and the expectation for barbs.  But more than the play, its genius was in the proxy who fired shots for Obama.

This is to say that in the Plays for the Presidency 2016, those who seek the oval office will be naturally advantaged if their politics are rooted in performance.  Of this week's newly-announced candidates, one got it, two didn't.

When the former Republican Carly Florina sniped in her dour video announcement, "Our founders never envisioned a professional political class," we were informed of the former tech CEO's opinion on the Clintons but cooled to Carly personally.

Contrast this to the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who declared from his Hope, Ark., perch, "I grew up blue-collar, not blue-blood." We are informed on the pastor-politician's opinion of Bill and Hillary, but the tone is self-effacing, and it dovetails with the Huckabee slogan, I like Mike.

Fiorina's might as well be, I hate Hillary.

Here's more from Huckabee this week, each quote having the impact of a Call Out on progressives but presenting as a more noble Challenge to conservatives.  Note, too, his shrewd use of the framing play we call a Screen, all to invoke the all-American staples of Western genre movies and a Christian God:

"I wonder if [Obama] could watch a Western from the 50s and be able to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys really are. As president...we will deal with jihadis just as we would deal with deadly snakes."

"As Americans, we ought to get onto our knees every night and thank God we still live in a country that people are trying to break into rather than one they're trying to break out of."

The other declared candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, was no better than Fiorina.  Like Clinton, Cruz, Paul, Rubio, Sanders, Walker, Webb and others, Carson's announcement was an oddly wonky monologue, enabled by framing strategies to invoke the likes of Lincoln and MLK and neatly side-step obvious questions of the good doctor's qualifications.

Campaigning is serious business. So is the strategy that directs it.  But what was once straight-faced talking points on civics and citizenship is quickly morphing into soaring sermons where dramatics, and particularly comedy, are thriving and where the better actors are sure to hold our attention.

Video image credits: C-SPAN