As President Obama tackles a sagging housing market, a tanking economy and rising unemployment, critics have been quick to jump on him for being too pessimistic in his public statements. Lately, he has been adding a touch of humor to his oratory, including an appearance this week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Leno, a comedian, peppers his talk show with humor and aims jokes at politicians.
To celebrate St. Patrick's Day, the Irish holiday, President Obama was appropriately decked out on Tuesday in a green tie.
Meeting with Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen he opened his comments with humor.
"It turns out we have something in common," he said. "He hails from County Offaly, and it was brought to my attention on the campaign that my great, great, great-grandfather on my mother's side came to America from a small village in this county as well. We are still speculating on whether we are related."
During months of tough talk on the economic crisis, Mr. Obama was mostly grim and he was criticized for it. But he has lightened up, if just a little.
"These are sober times and our president has delivered a lot of stern and sober talks to the American people but there is a lighter side to Barack Obama," said presidential historian Alan Lichtman.
Lately, President Obama has been mixing serious talk about the economy and government spending with a dose of humor.
In February, the president thanked the nation's governors for minding their manners at a dinner he hosted for them.
And at the recent Fiscal Responsibility Summit with members of Congress, when former presidential rival John McCain questioned the president about whether a new fleet of helicopters for the White House was fiscally responsible, Mr. Obama responded with humor, noting his helicopter seems adequate, but since he's never had a helicopter before, perhaps he's missing out on something.
"I think humor has always played a role in politics, in humanizing political figures, and it's also been a way of deflecting criticism," said Alan Lichtman.
Mr. Obama's sense of humor emerged at the end of a tense presidential campaign, where humor was mostly not on view. In mid-October, the presidential candidates delivered jokes at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York. Mr. Obama laughed not only at McCain but took potshots at himself.
"I think Barack Obama has a natural wit. It doesn't look contrived," said Mark Russell, a stand-up comic.
Historian Lichtman says the president no longer has to fear that his humor will be seen as stereotypical of black men, or turned against him.
At a town hall meeting in Indiana, the president was confronted by a woman who said he ought to have a beer with Sean Hannity, a right wing television commentator and an opponent. Mr. Obama made light of it.
"I think that he has injected enough humor to humanize himself in these sober and perilous times," said historian Alan Lichtman.
And a little humor couldn't hurt as the nation braces for more tough times.