Obama on 'The View': Were hosts too easy on him?

The format of 'The View' may allow a skilled politician a lot of control over the message. President Obama skirted around some questions about gay marriage and financial-markets reform.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama appears on the ABC's television show 'The View' in New York, on May 14. From left are, Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Walters, the president, Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

President Obama was on “The View” Tuesday, in case you haven’t heard. It was his fourth time on the couch of ABC’s multihost daytime chat show, and he looked comfortable, as you might expect. He joshed with Barbara Walters about her habit of keeping presidential napkins from White House visits (“You’re stealing our stuff!”). And he guessed, correctly, that Sherri Shepherd was the “View” panelist who recently appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”

But did “The View” go too easy on him? Let’s be clear: We’re not implying that the hosts can’t be tough questioners. We would not want Ms. Walters to interrogate us about snack-food habits, much less our approach to Medicare policy. However, it may be that the format of the show allows a skilled politician a lot of control over the message.

The show jumps from host to host, each with a different topic to discuss. Follow-ups are limited, before the show moves on to the next point. That made it difficult for even resident conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck to pin Mr. Obama down.

(OK, the show is just like a White House press conference in this regard, only on a different scale. But that’s another conversation.)

Take Obama’s recent statement in favor of gay marriage as an example. Walters asked him some good questions: Would he push a federal bill legalizing same-sex marriage? Would he work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as something that occurs between one man and one woman?

Obama answered by talking at first about the reasons he’d come out in support of gay marriage. In part, this was due to personal experience with gay couples.

“They said to me, 'You know what, the words matter.... Civil unions aren’t sufficient,' ” said Obama.

Fine. But what about working to change the law?

“Congress is clearly on notice that I think it’s a bad idea,” he said, which is actually a non-answer. And then, before Walters could trap him like a stray White House napkin, “The View” veered into another topic.

Similarly, Whoopi Goldberg let Obama get away without answering her question on financial-markets reform. Citing the recent $2 billion trading loss at JPMorgan, Ms. Goldberg asked if the president will hold anyone responsible. “This has to be the last straw,” she said.

Obama responded by saying that the loss showed why he had pushed for passage of the Dodd-Frank financial-markets reform act. This raised capital requirements to enable banks to withstand such floods of red ink, and it made it against the law for banks to take big bets in derivative markets with their own funds.

“You can’t make bets on your own trades with your own money,” Obama said of the banks.

Well, the trade that cost JPMorgan all that cash looked a lot like just such a bet, but it fell within a Dodd-Frank exception allowing banks to hedge against losses. Why was it still legal? There’s a follow-up that didn’t get asked, because the next host to seize control of the show went in a different direction.

We know we’re being a little pedantic here: “The View” isn’t “Meet the Press.” It isn’t even “Charlie Rose.” We have nothing against learning that Obama likes guacamole and corn chips, or will watch any kind of sport on TV, even luge. It isn’t bad to humanize America’s leaders.

But Obama recently has been accusing the US media of a “lack of gravitas,” according to a story in Politico on Wednesday. The president complained of a “steady stream of sensationalism and scandal” in his address Monday at Barnard College in New York, for instance.

The Politico piece quotes a former White House press adviser to the effect that Obama likes The New York Times because he thinks they’re serious.

“He thinks the rest of you guys aren’t,” the adviser tells Politico.

Point taken. But from our years in Washington, we’ll note that in general, the biggest problem that presidential administrations end up having with the press is not that it isn’t serious enough, but that it is an unruly, unpredictable hound they find difficult to control.

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