Fox News host Bill O’Reilly interviewed President Obama prior to the Super Bowl on Sunday, and it was a tough, contentious 15 minutes. Mr. O’Reilly interrupted Mr. Obama a number of times, while Obama blamed some of his problems on Fox.
So who won?
Well, it’s tough to “win” or “lose” in a presidential interview, given that there’s no easy way to keep score. But we’d say both men accomplished what they set out to do. O’Reilly got clips he can use on his show for weeks. Obama got to challenge the veracity of the conservative news worldview – something that will play well with his own supporters.
First, the host. O’Reilly sounded tough and focused on the three subjects his network has been pounding on for months: the botched "Obamacare" rollout, the Benghazi attack in 2012 that killed the US ambassador in Libya, and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
On Obamacare, O’Reilly asked when the president knew there would be problems. Obama replied that everyone knew it wouldn’t go perfectly, and so forth, and then the host jumped in and asked why Obama hadn’t fired Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
This seemed to put the president back on his heels a bit. He said, “When we’re in midstream, Bill, we want to make sure that our main focus is how do we make this thing work so that people are able to sign up?”
O’Reilly then asked if Obama felt his biggest mistake had been telling people they could keep their health insurance, if they liked their insurance.
“Oh Bill, you’ve got a long list of my mistakes of my presidency,” replied Obama, turning the question around.
He added, as he has when asked in the past, that this was a matter he “regretted.”
Perhaps because he felt pressed for time, O’Reilly didn’t follow up here. He just moved on. Next subject up: Benghazi.
For the most part here O’Reilly looked backwards. He dwelt on why administration officials didn’t use the word “terror” in their initial reports about the attack.
Obama said that initial reports were confusing but that “people understood at the time that something dangerous was happening.”
“We’ve got to make sure that not only have we implemented all the reforms that were recommended by the independent agencies, but we also have to make sure that we understand our folks out there are in a hazardous, dangerous situation,” said Obama.
Then there was some back and forth as to whether the administration had not described Benghazi as a terrorist attack because Obama’s campaign team did not want that word used prior to the November 2012 election, lest Al Qaeda appear resurgent.
Detractors believe this, said O’Reilly.
That’s when Obama turned around and put the blame on Fox.
“They believe it because folks like you are telling them that,” he said. He also noted that many congressional hearings have spent hours looking at all these questions.
Then O’Reilly moved on to the IRS. He noted that a former IRS chief, Douglas Shulman, was cleared to visit the Obama White House 157 times. The implication, which he did not address directly, is that top administration officials were aware of the extra scrutiny the IRS gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Obama noted that Mr. Shulman was involved in the Obamacare rollout and thus had lots of White House meetings to attend. (As other journalists have pointed out, most of those meetings were in the Old Executive Office Building, not the White House itself, and three-quarters of them were regularly scheduled health-care meetings.)
“I do not recall meeting with him in any of these meetings, which are pretty routine meetings,” said Obama.
That was about it. They ended on a positive note with O’Reilly saying he felt Obama’s “heart was in the right place,” and Obama making a wildly inaccurate prediction for the score of the upcoming game.
Was O’Reilly insulting? Or was he too easy? In fact, some critics of the president were annoyed that the Fox host focused on asking questions that Obama has been asked many times before, on subjects that have chalked up hours of congressional scrutiny, as the president himself said.
O’Reilly conducted a “faux-tough interview made up of questions that were virtually guaranteed to elicit nothing of value,” wrote the Atlantic’s Conor Freidersdorf, who has been critical of the administration’s drone and surveillance policies.
“Those who want Obama to face tough questions saw an opportunity squandered, and were bored to tears by stuff we’ve already heard,” Mr. Freidersdorf added.
He was not the only journalist who said O’Reilly’s tough demeanor actually concealed the fact that the questions were framed in such a manner as to make them easily deflectable.
“It’s a shame. O’Reilly had 15 minutes and an audience of millions to ask the president hard questions. Instead he lobbed lumpy softballs,” wrote Marc Ambinder, editor-at-large of the news magazine The Week.
To some conservatives, however, the interview revealed that Obama is persisting in explanations that they hold to be implausible.
“Obama DOUBLES DOWN on IRS targeting denial” was part of the headline on the right-leaning Daily Caller story about the interview, for instance.