Be likeable, but don’t be too frivolous. Be substantive, but don’t be too wonky. Be serious, but don’t be too grim. Be spontaneous, but don’t put your foot in your mouth. These were some of the contradictory demands on President Barack Obama for his appearance as the first sitting chief executive to appear on The Tonight Show—some of which he met better than others.
Like many a talk show guest, Obama began his visit to Jay Leno’s couch with what appeared to be some prepared anecdotes and one-liners: he joked ruefully about “life in the bubble,” where a 750-yard walk means being followed by a doctor with a defibrillator and said that Washington is “a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell.” (Here’s the full White House transcript, if you’re interested.)
The interview turned to AIG and its controversial bonus payments, which–this being a late-night show–Obama was able to address largely on his own terms without being strongly challenged. Leno began by asking Obama how “stunned” he was by the payouts, and he obliged by arguing that, whatever the legal language of the bonus agreements, “there’s a moral and ethical aspect to this, as well.”
Interestingly, though, Obama used the question not mainly to get in crowd-pleasing knocks on everyone’s least-favorite insurance company but to cast the controversy in terms of his longer-term policy goals. Leno set him up, for instance, with a red-meat question about the huge bonuses handed out at Merrill Lynch: “Shouldn’t somebody go to jail?” But Obama answered, “Here’s the dirty little secret, though. Most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal. And that is a sign of how much we’ve got to change our laws — right?”
That, in turn, is a sign of the competing communications pressures behind his media Obamathon this week. (He does 60 Minutes Sunday and holds a prime-time press conference Tuesday.) On the one hand, this week he’s had pundits kibitzing that he needed to show more fire and rage over the AIG bonuses that blew our national stack last week. On the other hand, he’s well aware that he was elected in part because he wasn’t the type of guy to fly into rages but instead seemed even-keeled.
So rhetorically, he went for dry sarcasm (referring to the “smart guys” who ran AIG into the ground) over populism and talked regulation over payback. He reined in his inner wonk enough to talk through the economic crisis in terms of toasters, credit cards, winter coats and–for car-buff Jay–auto diagnostics; but he also talked about banks holding on to TARP money in order to maintain capital ratios. (I’ll let others judge the policy and economics of his substance.) He spoke like he knew his audience took the crisis seriously, and wanted him to treat it seriously–but in a style and tone that people were ready to deal with while crashing on the couch before bed.
Leno, who seemed tickled up to his chin to have scored the Presidential coup, did ask one semi-challenging question: whether it was “frightening” that Congress could decide to claw back an unpopular bonus to unpopular people after the fact. Again, in the current public climate, you wouldn’t lose any popularity contests by just saying that those thieving bastards had it coming to them and if they didn’t like it, they can stick it in their jewel-encrusted humidors! Instead, Obama pivoted his response to his tax policy generally: that he wanted to make a change “back to where we were back in the 1990s, where you and I who are doing pretty well pay a little bit more to pay for health care, to pay for energy, to make sure that kids can go to college who aren’t as fortunate.”
Then there was the light stuff, which was where Obama had some of his surprisingly better moments and his worst. Obama’s humor tends to be dry, which doesn’t always kill on live TV, but he got laughs with remarks like saying he didn’t see why anyone would throw a basketball game for the President—”except for all those Secret Service guys with guns around.” He had a those-darn-kids riff about how Sasha and Malia were more impressed with the Starburst fruit chews on Marine One than the aerial view of the Lincoln Memorial.
And then Leno asked him about his bowling. He’d been practicing, Obama said, adding with mock pride, “I bowled a 129.” When Leno jokingly praised the mediocre score, Obama continued, “It was like the Special Olympics.”
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. (My guess: howls of offense from his critics, uncomfortable rationalizations from his supporters, a brief frenzy of obsession on cable news and radio, and charges that media were carrying the President’s water by downplaying the gaffe, or proving their bias by overplaying it. Let’s see if this doesn’t match up.)
Without that rhetorical gutterball, the interview probably would have been judged a success on its own terms, assuming that you didn’t consider a late-night appearance by definition un-Presidential. (Given that he was doing The Tonight Show at all, going entirely serious–”How dare you joke at a time like this, Mr. Leno, Sir!”–would have been a bit awkward.) As it was, Obama got a lengthy platform to build rapport and comfort with the viewers and present his view of the economy largely unfiltered. But it was at least another reminder that he is probably better off staying far, far away from anything involving bowling.