That was our first reaction after tuning in to watch President Obama’s appearance on Letterman’s “Late Show” Tuesday night. It’s not just appearance we’re talking about, although the CBS talk-show host really does resemble the world-famous journalist, if you squint. It was also tone. The president took up the whole hour of Mr. Letterman’s show, and most of the questions, while respectful, weren’t jokey. It was sort of like entering a comedy club and finding a think tank seminar inside.
Yes, there were funny bits. Asked if it was tough to have teen daughters, Mr. Obama said, “it worries me, but they’re surrounded by men with guns." Talking of being lifted bodily into the air by a Florida pizza shop owner, Obama opined that “I think he fixed something in my back."
Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, the sharpest barbs were aimed at him, via a video prepared by Letterman’s staff. It was a portion of the now-famous fund-raising secret tape, overdubbed with ridiculous comments. “I have a feeling Canada is planning something,” said the faux Romney at one point. “My new cologne is now available at Macy’s," he says, a bit later. “It’s Mittstified!”
Letterman asked Obama about his reaction to the tape, of course. (We mean the original address to donors, not the doctored version.) He gave an answer that might have Romney aides groaning, in that it was a velvet-gloved jab.
“When I won in 2008, 47 percent of the American people voted for John McCain, they didn’t vote for me. What I said on election night was even though you didn’t vote for me I hear your voices and I’m going to work as hard as I can to be your president.”
Letterman also pushed Obama pretty hard on the budget deficit. The comedian mentioned the ever-ticking debt clock featured at the Republican National Convention and said that the mounting numbers looked pretty scary.
Obama answered with a fairly detailed reply about how the debt came to accumulate, involving wars, tax cuts, a recession, and so forth. We think he moved pretty fast past the part his stimulus packages played in running up the red ink, but he at least mentioned them. The deficit isn’t a problem in the short term, he said, but in the long term and, maybe, the medium term as well.
“I don’t remember what the number was precisely,” he said, when Letterman asked what the deficit figure actually is.
The president made a pitch for bipartisanship, and said he hoped there would be more of it in a second term if he’s reelected. He said that the military is not the face of the US in the Middle East, especially in Libya and Egypt, and that the US remains an indispensable nation for much of the world. As he often does, he pressed for a tax increase on the wealthy as part of a future deficit-reduction plan.
At one point Letterman asked him the difference between running for office the first time and as an incumbent.
“The plane is nicer now,” Obama said.
Overall, the appearance shows, once again, why politicians increasingly pick nontraditional media venues over sparring with the Washington press corps. Obama got to make his policy case in a relaxed, controlled setting without surprises or truly tough questions. (We wish Letterman had asked whether US drone strikes contribute to Middle East unrest, for instance.)
Ironically, on his secret fund-raiser video Romney complains about Letterman, saying that since he (Romney) has appeared more often on Jan Leno’s “Tonight Show," Letterman is jealous.
“Now Letterman hates me because I’ve been on Leno more than him,” said Romney.
But Romney’s campaign knows well of the talk-show campaign imperative. The ex-Massachusetts governor is now scheduled to appear on “The View” in October, even though on the fundraising video he called it a “high-risk” show because most of its female hosts are liberals.