Why Obama's 'Tonight Show' chat was new low for mainstream media
Presidents typically use entertainment shows to burnish their image. But this week, President Obama turned to 'The Tonight Show' even to address serious policy like the embassy closures.
President Obama made his first extensive public comments this week on two pressing national security matters – the temporary closing of 19 embassies and rising tensions with Russian President Vladimir Putin – in an unlikely forum, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Obama is no stranger to late night television. Since his first run for president in 2008, he has visited a variety of venues– including daytime programs like "The View" and "The Ellen Degeneres Show" – to shape his personal political brand as accessible, fun, and hip, while also using these shows to reach out to key voting demographics. But his remarks Tuesday night to Mr. Leno – during his sixth appearance on the show – seemed to reflect a deliberate effort to avoid direct dialogue with the mainstream media on two topics at the forefront of the public discussion.
"There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality,” Obama said to Leno of the Russians. The next morning, the White House announced that a planned summit with Mr. Putin would be spiked, though the president has made no further public comments.
Why not hold a press conference in the White House briefing room or make a statement in the Rose Garden? Why the informality of a late night entertainment program? And is this yet the latest proof that for those in office, traditional media outlets have become less relevant, while the best means of sharing a message is the one that provides the most direct route to the public – like late night television?
“President Obama uses those kinds of forums mainly because he knows he reaches an audience that is largely friendly to him,” says Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent for USA Today and an adjunct professor of politics and journalism at American University. “He also knows that by going on those shows and talking about serious issues, they become less serious.”
By “less serious,” Professor Benedetto says he means less worrisome. Obama can convey a diminished need for the public’s concern by choice of interviewer alone. If the terrorist threat were grave or the relationship with Mr. Putin in real peril, Obama would address Americans from the Oval Office. Or he’d be standing at a podium in the East Room.
“It’s a clever strategy,” Benedetto says.