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Obama on Leno: 'Washington is a little bit like "American Idol," except everybody is Simon Cowell'



Obama-leno He strode onstage with that familiar, relaxed swagger, enjoying the cheering crowd even as the chattering classes on cable TV questioned the wisdom of his decision to come at all.

But minutes into President Barack Obama's historic sit-down on NBC's Tonight Show Thursday, two things were obvious: the chief executive was in his element, and he was facing a friendly house.

"Washington is a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell," quipped Obama, drawing audience cheers as host Jay Leno asked about the mounting criticism the president faces over his efforts to halt the country's faltering economy. "I think the American people understand it's taken us a while to get into this, it's going to take a while to get out."

As expected, Leno played down-to-earth interrogator, asking simple questions about huge bonuses paid by bailed-out companies such as AIG and Bank of America, eventually asking "shouldn't somebody go to jail?"

(UPDATE: Obama has already had to apologize for something he said on Leno -- an offhand joke implying his lack of bowling skills made him qualify for the Special Olympics for disabled athletes has drawn criticism, prompting the White House to issue an apology hours after the show and the president to call the head of the program and apologize personally.

When a politician smooth as Obama can't pull off a Tonight Show appearance without issuing an apology, you've got to wonder about the mojo affecting these first weeks in office.)

At times, Obama sounded like a civics teacher, offering simplified explanations of the current crisis that avoided blaming specific people and focused on systemic reform. Along the way, the president stuck to well-established positions -- expressing support for Treasury secretary Tim Geithner in measured tones and confident gestures.

"When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face, there's a law that says your toaster needs to be safe," Obama said, pressing the case for "common-sense regulations" to curb economic problems. "But when you get a credit card or a mortgage, there's no law that says if it explodes in your face, financially, somehow you're going to be protected."

As expected, Leno was a friendly questioner, declining to press Obama on growing questions about when administration officials learned about AIG's bonuses and whether members of his team were too willing to accept the longtime habits of big companies, despite all the talk of change.

Obama got what he wanted -- a relaxed audience with a popular host who asked questions that sounded direct and to the point, yet were easy to answer. And Leno got a sitting president to climb into his guest chair -- something even his legendary predecessor Johnny Carson never pulled off.

It may not sound like much. But in these times, for these men, it may be enough. *

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:56pm]


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