Moral outrage is the greatest motivating force in politics, according to my former boss Morton Blackwell. When you can stoke passionate disapproval over something your opponent does, you’re on your way to winning an issue.

The problem is that people don’t get mad as hell over everything, so shooting for moral outrage can make you look silly. Last week served up an excellent example of just that when the White House thought it was a good idea to drop a video of President Barack Obama absent-mindedly saluting Marines without putting his coffee cup down.

Military supporters were understandably upset, and conservative commentators decried the President’s seeming indifference to the troops. Their shrill and immediate protests backfired; Jon Stewart and MSNBC mocked the response to such a trivial matter. The story went away within two days. And if you are part of the majority of America that is not steeped in the tradition and customs of the military, you might also wonder why conservatives’ panties were bunched so.

In this case, moral outrage didn’t catch on with the general public.  But outrage isn’t the only way to score points against an opponent. Ridicule works, too.

Jokes about President Obama having mentally checked out from his second term a couple years early are becoming a staple of late night monologues. Left alone, the Latte Salute would have given them another punchline to the same joke. Instead of wringing hands over the President’s salute being disrespectful, why not make fun of him for looking like a guy whose weekend starts at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon?

The foundation for the current disapproval of the President stems from issues which do deserve outrage. For starters, people are losing their health insurance or being forced to pay more for less; policies meant to elevate the poor are perpetuating poverty; and our foreign policy is indecisive and poorly informed. It would be easier to mobilize voter unrest on those issues if people have an image of a detached President. Smart jokes about Obama’s careless, tone-deaf salute could have helped paint that picture.

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