I made this video-audio mash-up during my dissertation defense back in March 2012 to serve as an example of Obama’s “cute” rhetoric in his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner.
This video of Obama’s roast with the overlay of his bin Laden announcement demonstrates his uncanny sense of aptum. Obama’s expert use of zingers appropriately encompasses the ridiculousness of Trump’s demands that he produce a long-form birth certificate to prove the merit of a Black presidency. Because of Obama’s easy command of popular slang, central features of his communicative style, Obama’s political success is well documented. Yet his virtuosity with African American speech performances proves not only insufficient for solving America’s racial problems but paradoxically provides Obama with all the right moves of sounding as though he’s speaking candidly to Black folk, while in actuality communicating a whole lot of nothin’ to the political mainstream about the mainstream problem of white supremacy that results in anti-Black discrimination. Beyond Obama’s AAE as LWC fluency, the double move of using hip-hop to conservative ends is made possible by what Alim and Smitherman refer to as “white audiences’ ineptitude” at registering the nuances of AAE . This is especially true when AAE rhetorical tactics of circumlocution are deployed to disarm white and, at times hostile, listeners. I take issue with unequivocal compliments for Barack Obama’s political savvy and excuses made for his tendency to give “a little to both sides” when discussing racially sensitive issues (Alim 129). Admiration for the ethics of Obama’s rhetoric should be held back when questionably applied as in certain cases.
Given just hours prior to the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, we can retrospectively realize Obama’s roasting was concurrently orchestrated at the time of bin Laden’s killing. At a time when his approval ratings were low, the drop in public opinion was incurred at least partially through the relentless allegations made by the distinctly reactionary “birther” contingent within the Tea Party activist wing of the Republican party. Regarding the integrity of the president’s citizenship, Obama’s signifying snaps were in response to the bombastic demands made by Donald Trump. Obama disses “The Don” because of his proximity to hip-hop and successfully lumps Trump with the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists, some of whom insist the government faked the moon landing and believe there’s a space alien cover-up in Roswell. To draw that link would have been funny enough, but the real punch-line is when Obama aligns Trump with conspiracists who believe iconic rappers, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls are still alive. Obama’s LWC dialect meshes with certain paralinguistic markers through non-speech signals associated with AAE, lip-biting and eye-cutting, even a little teeth-sucking (Rickford 170). These gestures, familiar to almost all African Americans, is an unknown communicative behavior for the predominantly white audience. In so doing, Obama paints the hotel proprietor as a buffoon still further w Obama feigns praise for Trump’s supposed magnanimity and leadership for sparing Atlanta-based hip-hopper, Lil John after the men’s team failed a celebrity cooking challenge by refusing to fire the rap music producer/hype-man during an episode of Celebrity Apprentice. Even though the president had madd jokes for Trump (At one point Obama mock confesses at one point how the gravity of possibly having to fire Lil John would reasonably cause sleep deprivation), all the while actually staying up all night sleep as he plotted bin Laden’s assassination. In this instance, Obama looks in Trump’s direction while biting his lower lip and diagonally sweeping his gaze away from Trump in mock admiration and wisecracks, “But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf.” For good measure, with just the slightest hint of the suck-teeth Obama adds that Trump instead, “fired Gary Busey.”
Not more than 24 hours later after announcing bin Laden’s death, Obama delivers the news in a tone that is somber yet resolved. When viewed in conjunction, these two oratorical performances demonstrate unequivocally Obama’s ability to rhetorically balance pop-cultural frivolity with the ceremonial tones of a wartime speech, in which he must gauge his language when speaking to Americans about matters of urgent import or fleeting absurdity.
The linguistic assertions made by Obama reveal a two-pronged effect of his rhetoric that impact how he is received as a national leader insofar as he accepts the hegemony of white privilege and its resultant patterns of discrimination aimed at people of color. From this perspective, Obama’s AAE merely co-articulates white supremacist thinking, including post-racial conceits held by the “color-blind” constituency of white swing voters to create ambivalent ethical effects. Using the rhythms and commonplaces of AAE in response to highly racialized communication contexts has been Obama’s major strategy for handling voters. More specifically (and even more pointedly), Obama comforts white trepidations about his favoritism toward African Americans and other racial minorities through AAE.