Obama doing Leno: Why didn't a sitting president do this sooner?
The guest chair on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.
When Obama visits network TV’s top-rated late-night show to trade quips and talk up his plans for fixing the nation's economy, he will be doing something no president has done before him while in office.
And the reason why can be spelled out in three letters: AIG.
“The White House knows they are facing a huge populist, public backlash at the moment over the AIG bonuses,” said pundit and Huffington Post creator Arianna Huffington, referencing the groundswell of public condemnation over $165-million in bonuses the insurance giant had planned to award after taking billions in federal bailout money.
Pundits predict Obama’s Leno stop is an effort to reach an audience filled with the type of people most angered by the bonus issue — putting the president’s considerable charisma to work defusing and rechanneling public ire in a friendly setting.
“Jay Leno on this economic crisis really represents common sense America, and draws an audience Obama needs to reach,” added Huffington, who batted the issue around on Leno’s show herself just three weeks earlier. “Jay was going on about how ‘I remember the time when bankers were solid citizens,’ tapping into that longing to go back to traditional American values. In the green room, he said ‘I don’t want to put my money to work . . . I just want it to be home when I come back.’”
Indeed, the only surprise about Obama’s turn on Leno tonight may be that it took this long for a sitting president to make the leap in the first place.
Since then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton tooted his horn on Arsenio Hall’s long-gone talk show back in 1992, late-night talk shows have featured serious political figures trying to show off their down-to-earth side.
As a candidate, Obama appeared everywhere from a WWE wrestling show to American Idol pressing his case; as president he has already sat down before the Super Bowl with Today show anchor Matt Lauer.
Leno and the Tonight Show have benefited from this trend in particular; Arnold Schwarzenegger declared his candidacy for California governor there, and former GOP presidential candidate John McCain visited to defuse criticism for his uneven campaign.
And now, the president who insisted on keeping his BlackBerry and putting his weekly addresses on YouTube will explain his plan for fixing America’s finances to the guy who once joked that Obama should change his slogan from “Yes we can” to “We’re all screwed.”
“Frankly, I’m surprised this is a first, because we’ve been in this era for decades,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Politicians lag behind popular culture, because they don’t want to be seen as stepping out of line. And if you would have asked me about this 25 years ago, I would have been shrieking. But some people might say there’s not a whole lot of dignity left to the White House, anyway.”
It may be circumstance more than anything that has kept presidents from using this platform sooner.
Already famous for misspeaking, George W. Bush would have faced a minefield of potential problems during an unscripted talk show exchange. And although Bill Clinton has a better reputation for thinking on his feet, the Monica Lewinsky scandal made going on a late-night talk show an impossibility, just as the nation’s culture grew more accepting of such appearances.
Now the nation is led by a charismatic president with a talent for looking unruffled, dignified and witty, at a time when comics like David Letterman and Jon Stewart can have more impact on America’s political discourse than any news anchor or newspaper columnist.
“I would not be surprised if (Obama) doesn’t end up on (Stewart’s news satire) The Daily Show at some point, because these shows are an important part of the civic conversation,” said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “In this fragmented media universe, if you’re going to communicate with the entire citizenry, you’ve got to pull together a coalition of platforms.”
Though some worry this might be Obama’s way of sidestepping the press (the president did take questions from reporters on Wednesday before leaving for California), Huffington noted that, as long as he remains accessible to the media, such appearances can provide another important connection to the public at a time when consumers take such contact for granted.
“I’m always reminding people and myself that YouTube did not exist in the 2004 election,” she said. “Now, it’s tough for us to imagine our culture without it. But that gives you an idea of the media sea change we’ve been through.”