Friday, July 30, 2010

On 'The View,' Obama courts approval in an uncommon setting

Communicator-in-chief puts forth key goals and successes to an essential demographic

President Obama sat down with the ladies of "The View" yesterday in what has been reported as the first appearance by a sitting U.S. president on a daytime talk show. We are not talking about a “ladies who lunch” session or something as base as a Jerry Springer production, so why the big deal?

There is, of course, some hairsplitting in that reportage: President Bush actually claims first digs at this title, as he taped a segment at the Crawford ranch with Dr. Phil back in 2004. But there is a distinction between a president who allows an interviewer to bring the production to him, and one who physically goes into a studio and engages in lively dialogue with five TV personalities.

Why that distinction is gaining so much traction in the media is a function of some familiar factors.

The left/right ping-pong match

Conservative media outlets have seized upon Obama’s appearance as a denigration of the presidency, contending that an interview on a show that might next week host a teenager starring in a movie about vampires is somehow beneath the commander-in-chief. This sells short "The View"; the recently returned Barbara Walters conducted the bulk of the questioning, and she was as incisive and insightful as she has been with just about every other head of state over the past 30 years. The rest of the cast were as engaging, and the studio audience utterly respectful. So it’s hard to see any harm done to the office simply by virtue of the platform. Had the segment been hosted on Fox News Network, what would the argument have been? And tell me how this appearance differs from one on Dr. Phil?

"The View's" format provided Obama the opportunity to present his policy goals and administration’s achievements in a plainspoken and tangible way. As the world witnessed during 2008, Obama thrives in this environment, distilling complex questions and ideas without oversimplifying them and without bewildering average citizens with his Ivy League intellect. Delivering his message in this way on "The View" struck a decidedly populist note, which I am sure contributed to both conservative media’s outrage and to the mainstream’s fascination with this appearance.

‘Getting’ media

Obama and his administration’s approach to media have exhibited plenty of populist moves, including making the first appearance by a sitting president on a late-night talk show (actually, President Dwight Eisenhower taped a segment for Ed Sullivan, but let’s just go with it) and executing the most wide-ranging social media and grass-roots online outreach campaigns of any administration.

One could argue, therefore, that Obama’s appearance on a daytime chat show is simply an extension of his administration’s media and outreach strategy—and very illustrative of its media savvy. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put it, “People have busy lives, and it’s best to go where they are.”

Is it a populist tactic? Sure it is. Is it realistic and reflective of our times and the role in which media plays? Absolutely.

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