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03.17.10

Obama in Enemy Territory

Sitting for an interview with the network the White House loathes, the president was evasive when asked whether he supported a “deem and pass” vote on health care, but he and Fox News’ Bret Baier were civil, even in disagreement, Tunku Varadarajan says.

Has there ever been a conversation on Fox News between anchor and antagonist that has seemed so civilized, so equable, and—this being St. Patrick’s Day—so darn free of donnybrook? I refer to the Q&A between Bret Baier, former White House correspondent for the cable channel that the White House loathes with some considerable gusto, and Barack Obama, the president for whom there is nary a kind word uttered on the Fox News channel.

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The interview—which opened with Baier announcing, as if on some Monty Python show, that this was a “Special Edition of Special Report in the Blue Room in the White House”—seemed at first to promise a bout of silliness: Baier said 18,000 Fox viewers had mailed in questions, and he proceeded to read out two of those, both critical of Obamacare. The president riposted by laying claim to a bigger mailbag: “I get 40,000 emails a day,” he said. Take that, you Fox weenie! Size is everything.

But there was no descent, from there, into O’Reillydom on the part of the Fox anchor, nor into a pouting-professor state by the president. They kept it civil, and genial; and when Obama said, “Let me finish, Bret,” or “I’m trying to answer your questions and you keep interrupting!” there was none of the rancor that accompanied his interjections at last month’s televised, two-party health-care debate. The only time, in fact, that viewers might have winced was when the president spoke of something being “as good of a deal” as something else. (Who cares what thing… that offending “of” distracted the hell out of me.)

There was no descent into O’Reillydom on the part of the Fox anchor, nor into a pouting-professor state by the president. They kept it civil, and genial.

The conversation, as expected, was almost exclusively about health care, and as expected, both sides never came close to being in consonance on anything. The interview—which followed a Glenn Beck segment that was overheated even by Beck’s own torrid standards—was noteworthy mainly because the president was on Fox. (Imagine George W. Bush on Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show, and you can see why this made news.)

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Why did Obama choose to do the interview? It can’t have been because he hoped to persuade Fox viewers to support his health-care plan: His answers to Baier’s questions were either too punctilious to sway undecided opinion or, quite simply, evasive. Baier asked more than once whether Obama supported a “deem and pass” vote on health care—his brawny locution making it sound, deliciously, like “demon pass”—and each time Obama prevaricated: “Whatever they end up voting on, it is going to be a vote for or against my health-care proposal.”

And so it came to pass, Obama on Fox News, 18 whole minutes in which we learned very little—other than that it is still possible to disagree with someone and be gracious about it.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)