THE BLOG
01/30/2015 12:12 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Obama's Wit Has Been a Potent Political Weapon

SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

During President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address on January 20, he said, "I have no more campaigns to run."

His remark brought a round of applause from Republicans in the audience.

"I know," Obama said, smiling, "because I won both of them."

This brought an ovation from the Democrats.

What was missed in the stories about the exchange is that this was not the first time Obama has silenced a political rival with a jarring riposte.

The ability to deliver a sharp comeback that leaves a rival red-faced and speechless can be a strong political weapon. And perhaps no politician in his generation has used wit as effectively as Obama.

During the 2008 Democratic primaries, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was debating U.S. Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, the party's presumptive nominee.

At one point, Obama was asked how he would create a significantly different foreign policy from former President Bill Clinton, given that several of his advisers once worked for the Clinton administration.

"I want to hear that," Hillary Clinton interrupted, provoking laughter. Obama paused for a moment and then replied: "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."

Obama won the exchange, further demonstrating that he belonged on the podium with Clinton. Obama won the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Hillary Clinton advised him as his secretary of state.

Exchanges like the above are rare -- or, at least medium rare -- in politics because they require a good ear, a nimble brain, a sharp wit and good timing.

In addition, the remark must be spontaneous, and few things in politics -- including ad-libs -- are left to spontaneity.

Winston Churchill, one of the best politicians at delivering sharp putdowns, understood the secret behind the art form. "All the best off-the-cuff remarks," he said, "are prepared days beforehand."

When Ronald Reagan ran for a second term as president in 1984, he was in his 70s and critics wondered if he still had the vitality for the office. This criticism intensified when Reagan struggled during his first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale.

At the beginning of the next debate, a reporter raised the question of his age to Reagan, who was prepared with a response.

"I want you to know that I will not make age an issue in this campaign," Reagan said. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Reagan was easily re-elected.

In 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush selected little-known Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. The youthful Quayle often deflected concerns about his age and inexperience by comparing his experience to John F. Kennedy, who also had little political experience before seeking the presidency in 1960.

Quayle's handlers told him not to bring up the comparison during his debate with the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Lloyd Bentsen. But Quayle ignored the advice.

When the issue was raised during the debate, Quayle answered, "I have as much experience ... as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."

Bentsen was ready. "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mind. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Quayle went from being a punching bag to a punch line, and ever since, no politician has wanted to end up on the Quayle end of a comeback.

During Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, he struggled during his first debate with the Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Obama performed well during the second debate. With the third debate and the election approaching, Obama's advisers knew that Romney had been using a particular line on the campaign stump. Obama waited.

Romney told the television audience said that under President Barack Obama, the Navy was the smallest it had been since 1917.

When it was his turn to respond, Obama said, "Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. The question is not a game of Battleship."

Obama again won the exchange and easily won re-election.