When The View announced that Barack Obama would be the first sitting President to visit the show, there was some grumbling that appearing on a “fluff” show—among them, former View co-host Rosie O’Donnell. And yes, if you’re of the mind that a President should not do any television appearances beyond nightly-news and Sunday talk shows, that’s a consistent critique. But judged against the universe of non-news programs, Obama’s appearance on the show was actually more thoughtful and substantive than the usual political appearance on a late-night talk show.
No, The View doesn’t do wonky. No one was going to press Obama on the fine points of cap-and-trade or ask his legislative strategy for getting an immigration bill through Congress. The View doesn’t really do policy, but it does do issues; i.e., matters that get people talking. And beyond the cute talk (Obama came armed with lines like “I was trying to find a show that Michelle actually watched”), the interview was a fairly earnest talk about the state of political dialogue, the economy and, especially, race.
The trigger for that last topic was the Shirley Sherrod debacle, which Sherri Shepherd brought up. Obama first used the question to charge the media with inflating a premature controversy, while acknowledging that “people in [his] administration” overreacted to it in turn. Whoopi Goldberg extended the discussion to ask whether we can see America as progressing beyond labels, which in the news media tends to get reduced to a yes or no question: either we’re “post-racial” or we’re not. Obama, citing as he often does his own background, said that the answer was complicated—not just for him but for everyone. “We’re kind of a mongrel people,” he said. “That’s true for white America too, but we [African Americans] just know more about it.”
In-house conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck pressed Obama on why his administration boasts of having “saved” jobs—i.e., saying that far more people would be unemployed if not for its actions—when so many people were losing jobs. The rhetoric, she suggested, was tone-deaf if not insensitive given the unemployment level. “It makes a difference, though, if your job was one of the ones that got saved,” he said.
Now, was there aggressive follow-up? Statistics? Fact-checking? No, no and no. But judged by its own standard—as a forum to chew over America’s fixations and priorities—The View came off pretty well, better and more serious than the comparable Leno and Letterman hits, which tend to push through topics fast, anxious not to go too long between laughs.
That said, there was plenty of, yes, fluff at the beginning and end of the interview, including a quiz on the President’s pop-culture knowledge that, God help us, may end up generating more coverage than anything else in the interview. Asked about Jersey Shore cast member Snooki (an impassioned critic of his tanning tax), Obama demurred that he didn’t know who she was, though “I know Lindsay’s in jail.”
Sure enough, multiple websites were reporting within minutes that Obama had, in fact, named Snooki in a joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner in the spring. I await the naming of a special prosecutor.