03/23/09 — Bad idea, twice: There's a reason presidents don't go on variety programs

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Bad idea, twice: There's a reason presidents don't go on variety programs

It almost seems hardly worth commenting on since on the surface it seems like just another silly decision by overzealous approval-rating-hunting presidential advisers.
But President Obama's appearance on "The Tonight Show" this past week really has a deeper lesson -- and a subsequent interview on "60 Minutes" confirms it.
There is a reason that this president is the first to be on a late-night talk show -- and one of the few sitting presidents to allow himself to be interviewed about policy on a primetime news program in a less-formal venue when the nation is troubled.
This is serious business.
President Obama's appearance on Jay Leno's "comedy" and "variety" show was just a bad idea all around -- unless the economy is booming and Americans are happy with the progress their government is making.
You can see the plan -- use "The Tonight Show" as a means to reassure the American people that everything is OK -- and to reach people who might otherwise not be paying any attention to the news.
The problem is not his foot-in-the-mouth reference to the Special Olympics -- an attempt at unscripted humor -- although that was unfortunate.
It is that this president does not yet seem to get that public relations moves, stirring speeches and photo opportunities are not going to reassure anyone or advance any of the hard work necessary to get this economy going again.
The Americans who are worried about their jobs and wondering if they should even bother to invest in their 401K want real answers, not folksy stories and glib exchanges with Jay.
And the same is true for the "60 Minutes" interview.
If the president wants to reach more people in primetime and wants to calm fears, he needs to address the nation, not allow himself to be questioned by one journalist in a TV studio. That venue just does not lend itself to real, probing questions.  
And if he is going to do so -- he needs to be more careful about the message he sends.
Since his early candidacy, President Obama has had a problem with image vs. substance -- and using his incredible speech-making ability as a substitute for substantive commentary on real issues.
Being presidential right now does not mean trying to be popular or to say the right things -- or to win over viewers with wit and "everyman" appearances.
We need a leader we can respect and trust -- someone who has a handle on the policy, picks the right people to direct it and is able to, with quiet confidence, get us to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
That takes more than a joke and a couple TV gigs. 

Published in Editorials on March 23, 2009 3:31 PM