Maybe it was the setting, an afternoon chat in the White House on Super Bowl Sunday. Maybe it was the fact that Barack Obama’s team had just helped free two injured Fox News correspondents from Egypt. But Bill O’Reilly didn’t put any points on the board.
That’s not necessarily a criticism. For O’Reilly to have subjected the president to an enhanced interrogation would have struck precisely the wrong note. But strangely for the self-assured anchor, he raced through his questions as if the fourth quarter was running down and he was two touchdowns behind.
Obama, relaxed and tieless, danced out of danger whenever O’Reilly tried to charge past the line of scrimmage. In the closing seconds, in fact, the Fox News host made a bid for presidential approval: “I hope you think I’m fair to you.”
Considering that his administration had once declared war on Fox News and boycotted the nation’s top-rated cable news outfit, the session’s final score added up to a big win for Obama—with a huge audience virtually guaranteed.
Bill-O wisely started with the news of the day—when would Hosni Mubarak give up power?—and when the president started offering phrases like “orderly transition” and “meaningful transition,” O’Reilly seemed surprised: “So you don’t know when he’s going to leave?” No, and neither does anyone else.
Considering that his administration had once declared war on Fox News, the session added up to a big win for Obama—with a huge audience virtually guaranteed.
The host offered his own dark suspicions about the Egyptian leader—“He knows bad things about us,” “I’m just worried he might go off the reservation”—but that didn’t lead anywhere. Neither did his questions about the “tough boys” of the Muslim Brotherhood; Obama said “strains of their ideology” were anti-U.S. but didn’t rule out the group’s participation in some future Cairo government.
O’Reilly started to gain a little traction with questions about a federal judge striking down the new health-care law as unconstitutional, but Obama just kept punting, saying he didn’t want to refight the battles of the last two years.
But the interviewer fumbled when quoting the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which, like Fox, is part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Wasn’t the president “a determined man of the left” who wants to redistribute income?
“The Wall Street Journal would probably paint you as a left-wing guy,” Obama said with a laugh. O’Reilly’s wobbly comeback was that the administration was in fact redistributing income by extending health insurance to 40 million Americans.
“There’s no reason if you get sick you should go bankrupt,” Obama replied. How many Super Bowl fans were going to boo that line?
O’Reilly seemed offended by Obama’s chuckle when he asserted that many folks view the president as “a big-government liberal.”
“Come on, you know that,” O’Reilly insisted. However he framed the question, Obama denied moving to the center, though the political evidence is that he has been doing a good deal of that.
From there, Super Bowl notwithstanding, O’Reilly switched to softball. Worst part of the job? Most surprising part of the job? Have you changed? Obama, sensing the goal line, said he didn’t like being in “the bubble,” that he was “a little grayer,” and that he was enjoying himself more in the job. He even swatted away O’Reilly’s Hail Mary pass—“Does it disturb you that so many people hate you?”—by saying they were reacting to a “funhouse mirror” image of him.
Not only that, the president wouldn’t even make a prediction for whether the Steelers or Packers would come out on top! No sense in alienating the voters of Pennsylvania or Wisconsin for 2012.
If it wasn’t a gridiron smackdown, the encounter probably helped O’Reilly. He came off as reasonable and possessing a sense of humor, unlike some of his Fox colleagues who harbor a visceral dislike for the president. In that sense, perhaps O’Reilly scored as well. And he got to ask more questions on tape for his program, which means a day after the big game ends, he’ll still be putting up the numbers.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.