President Obama on 'The Tonight Show': A good move?

President Obama will appear on 'The Tonight Show' Tuesday for the fourth time. The show will give the president a wider audience but might have limited benefits, experts say.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama talks with with Jay Leno between segments of an interview at The Tonight Show, Tuesday, in Burbank, Calif.

President Obama dropped by Jay Leno’s "Tonight Show" taping Tuesday morning, presumably to pick up some of the “I’m just like you” dust that rubs off on noncomedians when they hang with comedy hosts.

But the risks and rewards of walking on the lighter side of the media world are very different from what they were when Mr. Obama was a senator and presidental candidate, say political scientists and media analysts.

Entertainment programs do allow the president to reach a larger and often different audience from the one he might get during a traditional news event, says Jennifer Hopper, a political scientist at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. “On the other hand,” she notes via e-mail, “the more relaxed atmosphere could make a problematic gaffe more likely."

Obama has appeared on 'The Tonight Show' three times before, but only once as president. In that March 2009 appearance, the president was widely criticized after he joked on "The Tonight Show" about his low bowling score, saying his bad skills are "like the Special Olympics."

But comedy hosts such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have helped ratchet up the political savvy of late-night talk shows and turn the circuit into an obligatory appearance for officials and candidates alike. A lot depends on how politicians handle themselves on the talk-show hot seat. “We tend to vote for people we think we can laugh with and not those we laugh at,” says Chris Lamb, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

The visit shows the diverse strategy today’s politicians must use to reach wide audiences.

“It used to be that the president could go on national TV and reach huge numbers at once, but now it takes a crazy quilt of media appearances to put together the same numbers," points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

Some suggest that given the serious issues the president currently faces – from the economy to political dysfunction in Washington – working on his personality should be the least of his worries.

“President Obama is trying to reignite the charismatic persona he so magically presented when he was candidate Obama,” says Jeff McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., via e-mail.

The problem now, he adds, is that Obama is not a candidate, he is the president: “Performance matters more now than personality,” and late-night comedy shows lend themselves to displaying personality and not executive performance.

Mr. Leno "is not a journalist or public-affairs expert, and his conversation with the president just can't help the president in advancing any serious policy initiative,” Professor McCall adds.

Leno's ratings are relatively weak these days, reflecting the overall dismal performance of NBC prime time. But they can still deliver enticing demographics, and Obama might have chosen Leno both for his audience and his style.

“He could go to Colbert, Letterman, Fallon, Conan, even Ferguson for [comedy],” says Ryan Vaughan, who teaches media and humor courses at the State University of New York in Binghamton. “But Leno's doughy, doofy style won't push Obama into any revelatory territory.”

And perhaps the appearance will gain traction on the Internet, notes Yahoo! media critic Dylan Stableford. Presumably, he says, “the hope here is that something from the interview will pop out and either go viral on the Internet, or make the rounds on all the morning talk shows.”

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