WASHINGTON – The jokes about Barack Obama's close relationship with his teleprompter have been constant since he became president.
Rush Limbaugh's poked fun at it on the radio. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi bantered about it during an international summit. Obama himself skewered his affinity for the speaking crutch in an appearance before reporters.
But now, a year into Obama's administration, the subject has taken on more of an edge — and become a symbol of a larger debate over whether Obama has lost touch with the people.
Republican Sarah Palin mocked Obama over the weekend when she referred to the conservative Tea Party movement as being "much bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter."
And heads turned when Jon Stewart, who hosts Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," recently displayed footage of Obama ensconced behind a podium, flanked by teleprompter screens during an appearance at a middle school.
"You set up a presidential podium and a teleprompter in a sixth-grade classroom?" said an incredulous Stewart, not typically a critic of Obama.
The White House waved off the whole matter as insignificant and pointed out that Obama had used the speaking crutch to address reporters, not school kids.
But Obama's team isn't above taking its own potshots.
On Tuesday, a few days after Palin had mocked Obama, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs turned up at the White House briefing with a few talking points — "hope" and "change" — scrawled on his hand.
Call it political payback.
When Palin spoke Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., she had had her own human crib sheet: "Energy," "tax" and "lift American spirits" were written on her hand. During one question, she looked down at her palm for a cue.
Did Gibbs elevate Palin to Obama's level by taking a swipe at her from the White House?
It all sounds kind of silly.
But sometimes, small things take on big meaning when they become emblematic of larger truths.
The viral video of John Edwards primping his hair stuck because of questions about whether he was an empty suit.
Joe the Plumber emerged as a campaign celebrity in 2008 because people were worried about the problems facing everyman.
Obama himself has acknowledged that his political problems of late have been caused in part by his failure to connect with ordinary Americans still feeling economic pain.
"We lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are," he said after Democrats lost a crucial Senate seat in Massachusetts last month.
Obama's critics point to his podium and teleprompter as evidence of the disconnect.
Palin's critics point to her flesh-and-ink crib notes as one more sign she's a lightweight.
Or maybe all these two have shown is that they're human and need a little help remembering key points.
Associated Press writer Mark S. Smith contributed to this report.