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Obama and Russert Have Genial Sunday Sitdown

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To say that there's a surfeit of skepticism about the journalistic practices of NBC's Tim Russert would be an understatement. Over the weekend, the Atlantic's Matt Yglesias offered up a concise text for the Russert Watcher:

Russert doesn't care -- at all -- about whether or not his actions inform the American electorate. Rather, he cares about creating a "news-making" event -- likely something embarrassing for the politician -- and about burnishing his reputation for toughness. He attracts a circle of admirers who share his perverse and unethical lack of concern for whether or not his work helps produce an informed public, gobs of less-prominent television journalists seek to emulate his lack of concern with informing the public, print journalists eagerly court opportunities to appear on the non-informative shows hosted by Russert and his emulators, and down the rabbit hole we go.

Flashing back to the last Democratic debate, which Russert co-moderated, it didn't escape our attention that Barack Obama got something of the soft-pedal treatment. MSNBC more or less went into the debate looking to write a plot-pivot where Hillary Clinton's "inevitability" was concerned, and they by and large achieved this end, nailing her for supporting Eliot Spitzer's driver's license program. Obama, who's opinion is said to be in line with Clinton's on Spitzer's licenses, didn't get tarred and feathered for his stance. He got to answer questions on UFOs and his Halloween costume.

But with Obama set for a Meet The Press one-on-one with Russert, the question was: would the gloves come off? Well, yes and no: some tough-sounding questions were asked, but Russert's softball treatment of Obama basically continued.

Russert led off with a series of questions that probed Obama's relevant experience, based on polls, Hillary Clinton's record, and talking points from Rudy Giuliani and Charles Rangel. The line of questioning was typically irksome in its Russert-ness, but it was clear that, at bottom, the questioning lacked a certain degree of seriousness. When Clinton's experience is summarized as "..was first lady in Arkansas, first lady at the White House for eight years, U.S. senator for seven years," you're all but setting up Obama's response. Sillier still was the way Russert phrased his question on Giuliani's "never-ran-a-this, never-ran-a-that" refrain: where you'd expect him to ask, "How do you respond to this indictment of your inexperience?" Obama was instead asked, "How can [you] possibly want the top executive job in the country?" This is genial, job-interview stuff.

That's not to say Obama didn't by-and-large answer well. Still, he left open doors. At one point, he summarized his position by saying, "Those are the questions I think people are going to be asking." He "thinks?" Surely, by now, he can speak with some authority on the questions Americans are asking of the Presidential candidates! Elsewhere, Obama repeated a refrain of his own: "Having the ability to focus on getting the job done, as opposed to getting embroiled in ideological arguments...I think, is going to be important for the next president, and that's what I intend to do as president." But how? What tactics is Obama going to deploy to avoid the partisan bickering? Russert doesn't care to ask.

On the topics of social security and the Iraq war, Russert probed without sinking his teeth too deeply into Obama. At one point during the social security discussion, Russert all but provided Obama with the answer: "So you would not be afraid to say: 'We have a problem with Social Security, and I'm willing to raise taxes on some to help...fix it." Elsewhere, Obama explains away a July 2004 vacillation in his anti-war position by explaining, "Now, Tim, that first quote was made with an interview with a guy named Tim Russert on MEET THE PRESS during the convention when we had a nominee for the president and a vice president, both of whom had voted for the war. And so...it was probably the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party's nominees'...when it came to Iraq." But isn't Obama all about people before politic?! Here he admits to carrying water for the party at the expense of the public interest. Russert fails to note the discrepancy.

Obama deserves credit for putting out something specific on the subject of withdrawal--all combat troops out within sixteen months. But that doesn't square precisely with what the New York Times reported in September, "Senator Barack Obama of Illinois would leave a military presence of as-yet unspecified size in Iraq to provide security for American personnel, fight terrorism and train Iraqis." In this interview, Obama accounts for the security and the counter-terrorism effort, but the training mission seems to have fallen off the table. This escapes Russert's attention--though, in fairness, Russert seems briefly skeptical if the Obama mission signifies anything approaching a significant withdrawal: "...we have 165,000 [troops] there now. Are we talking 150,000?" Obama responds by reiterating his intention to pull "the vast majority" of the deployment from Iraq, and the question is never taken up again.

Over the course of the exchange, you can't help but notice how often Russert appears to move towards a kill shot only to pull back. Obama emerges from a line of questioning on his past acceptance of special-interest monies largely unscathed. He bats back inquiries on his dealings with a supporter under indictment without Russert making what should have been an obvious rhetorical connection to Whitewater. And when Obama responds to an inquiry on his attachments to controversial "ex-gay" gospel singer Donnie McClurkin, by saying "part of what I hope to offer as President is the ability to reach to people that I don't agree with," Russert fails to note the difference between "reaching out to people" that he doesn't agree with and actively having those same people campaign on his behalf.

In the end, Obama said, "It was terrific being here." And, compared to many candidate's experiences, it certainly was.