The Best And The Worst Of Obama's Speed-Date With The Sunday News Anchors
This Sunday, as you are no doubt aware, President Obama invited State Of The Union, Face The Nation, Meet The Press, This Week, and NOT FOX NEWS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES into the White House to attempt "The Full Ginsburg", which is a term given to anyone who attempts to appear on all five Sunday morning political shows. (Obama opted to favor Univision with an appearance, instead of Fox News.) Since Obama eschewed the warm embrace of "Fox News Sunday", it would perhaps be better to call the president's effort the "Modified, Limited Ginsburg".
This series of tete-a-tetes was much-hyped and the going concern was that Obama was "overexposed." People wondered: WHAT WOULD HAPPEN? And: HOW WOULD EVERYTHING CHANGE? And then Obama just let each reporter into the same drably-lit room at the White House and conducted the interviews as if the goal were to make them as uninteresting as possible.
This left little room for the networks to distinguish themselves (with the exception of CNN). And, as you might expect, taken as a whole there was a ton of repetition in the questions and answers. Most of the interviewers managed variations on the following themes:
--Generic process questions on health care reform.
--Generic questions on racism/Town Halls/Jimmy Carter/Nancy Pelosi
--Will health care reform require you to break a promise and tax the middle class?
--Generic question on Afghanistan: troop levels, McChrystal's report, are you changing your strategy?
Coupled with the fact that the entire interview process was more like a morning of watching Obama speed-date a bunch of news anchors, the repetition didn't do much for the viewer in terms of making any one of these interviews stand out as the Seminal One-On-One Obama Interview. No one came close to pulling a Frost/Nixon. But, nonetheless, there were some standout moments and it's worth noting who did the best and worst job at getting the interview to pop.
THE BEST: It was close, but CNN. CNN had the most raw material and put it to the best use, skillfully editing the interview and making a drawn-out event out of it. Where everyone else led off the interview with questions on health care, John King focused on the larger economy and began specifically with a question on unemployment: "Where the are jobs. When are they coming back?" SMART, SMART, SMART. Going into 2012, the key to Obama getting re-elected is whether or not people are back at work or still getting ground up in the teeth of double-digit unemployment. King not only found the most relevant way to begin an interview with the President today, he set his table, shrewdly, for interviews to come.
King also only one tiny question about the political process ("Mitchell McConnell [said]...we're winning the health care debate. What do you think of that?") and didn't attach a whole lot of importance to it, using it as a pivot question as opposed to a lead question. If you're as sick of process questions as I am, you appreciate this greatly.
On the more generic fare, King's questions were more informative. His "will you raise taxes on the middle class" question explained the "Cadillac insurance plan" fees. His Afghanistan interrogation began with intel from CNN's Pentagon reporter. He asked a better variety of foreign policy questions, and his final question -- which was used by most as a "lighter side" outlier -- asked Obama to "kitchen table" the H1N1 virus. To the end, the interview was serious, substantive, varied, and actively sought to not waste a minute of the viewer's time.
THE WORST: Hate to sound like a broken record but the metaphor is more than appropriate in this case. Meet The Press was the worst, by several country miles. This was Folgers Crystals -- mountain-grown vapidity. It was almost as if the working thesis was to prove that nothing of value could possibly come from having a half hour alone with the President of the United States.
Here's the Meet The Press interview in a nutshell: some generic process questions about health care reform, followed by questions about racism, and then some questions about Afghanistan, and then, "Who will win the World Series?" If every single question asked by every single interviewer on Sunday were wannabe kickball players, David Gregory's questions would all be the last ones chosen.
The first five questions were an example of pure vacuousness: lame, insufferable process questions of the most head-pounding sort:
First: "As you assess the situation, I wonder whether you approach this with a minimum threshold of what you'll accept for reform or at this point have you said, 'I've laid out my plan - take it all or nothing?'"
Then: "What are the hard choices that you are now asking the American people to make, and who are you going to say no to in order to get health care done?"
Then: (not even a question), "Like the public option? You effectively said to the left, it's not going to happen."
Then, "Are these the hard choices? Who are you saying no to?"
Then: "What are you really doing to say to the left? 'Look, you may not like this, but you've got to get on board and you've got to do this?'"
Basically, Gregory begins with a question that everyone has asked Obama a thousand times, then goes on to attempt to put words in his mouth twice, make generic mention of "hard choices" a couple of times, and giddily cheer-lead any efforts to stick it to "the left," as if the progressive caucus hasn't already made considerable compromises. David Gregory's clear message to the president is: "I'm going to ask a series of bad questions, but if you give me the answer I like, I will give you a free bouncy ride, Mr. President."
Honestly, the highlight for me was that David Gregory got Obama to nominally support the Saint Louis Cardinals.
THE REST: Were it not for CNN, I'd probably have given my top marks to George Stephanopoulos at This Week. While he hit all of this week's generic obsessions, he didn't pointlessly dwell on any of them. His exchange with Obama over whether he could keep his promise on not raising taxes on the middle class was the weekend's most electric exchange, with Stephanopoulos quoting from the dictionary, and Obama snarking, "My critics say everything's a tax increase. My critics say I'm taking over every segment of the economy."
Stephanopoulos also got to ask a variety of unique questions, on Medicare Advantage and on ACORN, and his use of a historical question as his "lighter side/outlier" (Kennedy and Khruschev leading to "What's the moment in the last eight months where you took a step back and said, 'Wow, I'm going to have to step up my game'?") was one of the better ones I've heard in a while. The ACORN questioning was interesting, as he got Obama to say that "it's not something that I followed closely" yet to also cop to having seen the videos that Fox has been running. That was a contradiction that tripped my "Oh, really?" alarms.
Bob Schieffer at Face The Nation was the model of a good interviewer, constrained. As a news consumer, Schieffer always managed to convince me that he's committed and serious, that he doesn't care about being self-aggrandizing or looking pretty for the cameras, and that he's there to do a job on his viewers' behalf -- period, end of story. But then the vagaries of a bad time slot and a small half-hour window inevitably close off the potential. Schieffer managed to get in a question about the decision to scrap the Eastern Europe missile defense system and he was one of two interviewers to bring up Eric Holder's decision to launch an investigation into the CIA and torture. But that was about as unique as the questioning got. The interview never did anything to grate on the viewer but it rarely managed to get beyond the generic queries that everybody else was asking.
THE PRESIDENT: These interviews were hyped in advance as an attempt on Obama's part to continue to "move the needle" on health care reform and get a "game changing moment." If this was the goal, chances are, nothing of the kind will be achieved. Obama's passionate defense of the goals of health care reform was clearly bundled into his speech before Congress. Obama did an adequate job defending how his plan would benefit the middle class and he clarified some key sticking points on insurance mandates and fees for top-dollar plans. Obama continued to seem pretty much untroubled by the fact that a "public option" might not be an eventual feature of the reform bill and attempted no defense of the "public option" on the merits.
Asked repeatedly about whether race had been injected into the debate, Obama consistently offered the explanation that it was generic anti-government sentiment fueling the uproar of the summer and that race was a bug, not a feature, of that. He consistently called out the media for giving more airtime to the more intensely senseless voices in the political spectrum, which is why many have framed the entire interview weekend as some sort of Obama-versus-the-media spectacle.
What did President Obama achieve? Well, the president came into this September weekend after a long August during which he seemed to lose the thread of his presidency, facing the criticism that he was an overexposed celebrity figure. Just like last year, if you remember! And just like last year, Obama's response was to present himself, not as a hero to an issue or cause, but simply as a competent manager who could be counted on to handle a variety of critical tasks without giving in to the passions of the moment. So, rather than a blockbuster series of interviews, everyone was treated to the same, interchangeable, low-fi set up, and the president demonstrated a decent grasp of the entire presidential portfolio.
Anyone who tuned in hoping that Obama would reveal himself as a crusader or a fool probably turned off the teevee feeling a little bit disappointed. Just as he did with John McCain, Obama built his defense along these lines: my opponents are going to win news cycles, I am just going to show up every day and work on this immense array of serious issues with competence.
There were no game-changers, there were no gaffes. The big takeaway here is that President Obama has returned to his default position. From that position, Obama has not provided much in the way of revolutionary change. However, it's the one place where no one has yet bested him.