I have a theory about that campaign stop almost exactly a year ago, where President Barack Obama bowled miserably at Pleasant Valley Bowl in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
For better or worse, most of the time a black candidate doesn’t have to worry about convincing voters that he’s got some basic coordination and rhythm. Since Obama already had the steady-Eddie jump shooter image on the basketball court, he needed some awkward bowling footage, a long lens shot of him wearing his semi-goofy bike helmet, and a couple of appearances on Ellen doing the white boy shuffle to help balance that out. Throwing a few gutter balls was probably an accident, but it wound up being just the right touch that Obama needed to cement his Al Gore/Will Smith Afro-nerd chic image.
But the image thing can cut you both ways, and this time, the bowling/talk show combo messed him up. If you watch the Leno interview, toward the end Obama just looks too comfortable for his own good. TIME’s James Poniewozik wrote:
That’s the thing about gaffes: they happen not in the focal moments, but in the seemingly harmless little digressions, when you’re relaxed—too relaxed—you feel you’ve just about gotten through a high-stakes interview, and your inner censor decides to step out for a cigarette break. It just about guarantees a news cycle of outrage, apologies and, of course, questions about what the reaction would have been had President Bush made the same joke.
Not only was Obama’s crack offensive, but he stepped on his own otherwise solid performance, and he wound up consigning his video greeting to Iran to the back pages. So Obama is lucky that this happened late on Thursday night, with only one Friday news cycle to sweat out, and with AIG madness and March Madness competing for air time.
Obama gets a partial mulligan this time—the President has always been in favor of education, not castigaton. But I think he has to do more than what he’s done so far—releasing a press statement and calling Special Olympics chair Tim Shriver to apologize. Maybe today’s not the day for a big mea culpa, but as long as Obama is telling us that the buck stops with him on the economy, the war, etc., he needs to shout out the Special Olympics in a way that lets folks know how painful that kind of joke can be, and that he knows that in this instance, he set a bad example.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.