Hanging With Women

Fatherly Obama’s Charm Turns Patronizing on Visit to ‘The View’

Michelle Cottle says our Smooth Operator president crossed the line with lame jokes at Michelle’s expense.

Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

I’m a big fan of political pandering. Forget the shamelessness, the emptiness, the glaring disingenuousness. Pandering is an indication that a politician recognizes the importance—the electoral power—of a particular voting bloc. It signals that, politically speaking, your demographic has arrived.

That said, I have mixed feelings whenever I watch President Obama work that gender gap on The View.

Tuesday was Obama’s fourth appearance on the ABC daytime gabfest, his second as POTUS. At this point, he’s got his routine down pat: glide in; banter with Whoopi, Joy, Sherri, Elisabeth, and Barbara; hit the talking points du jour; field a few gently probing political questions along with a couple of goofy pop-cultural ones; mention Michelle and the girls as much as possible; smile, smile, smile; then glide on out—leaving a good chunk of the show’s 4 million mostly female viewers hopelessly smitten.

On the one hand, I am in awe of the president’s evident ease in such an estrogen-heavy environment. Tucked into the couch next to Babs and the gang, Obama oozes warmth, humor, interest, and just the right amount of sex appeal. (Oh, you know he does.)

In the midst of this impressive charm offensive, however, I can’t help but feel a smidge patronized by the whole display: the warm-and-chummy sewing-circle atmosphere, the endlessly patient and fatherly tone Obama uses when answering questions (the more complicated the issue, the more he sounds as though he’s speaking to not-so-bright children), and, oy, those cutesy quips about Michelle.

Part of this vibe may be an unavoidable byproduct of the show’s format. With its informal arrangement—guest in the center of the curving sofa closely flanked by women—the set leaves Obama looking like a rooster being swarmed by a flock of hens. Unsurprisingly, given that we’re talking about the leader of the free world here, the ladies don’t merely address Obama with deference, they gaze at him like he’s a cross between JFK and Jesus. It doesn’t help that the show’s one conservative, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, is the youngest and most girlish of the bunch, making her exchanges with Obama look an awful lot like a freshman co-ed quizzing her college professor.

The nature of the show aside, the president brings a fair amount of Smooth Operator cheesiness to his performance. “I like hanging out with women!” he crowed, after strutting across the stage to wild audience applause and doling out cheek kisses like candy. He deploys that movie star smile to devastating effect. And while he does a nice job discussing the joys of family life (the anecdote about Malia’s praising him for being “just the right amount of embarrassing” was adorable, and his tying the girls’ basketball achievements to a salute to Title IX was inspired), his references to Michelle often carry the whiff of an indulgent mate chuckling at the little woman’s quirks and feistiness.

Back in 2010, for instance, the POTUS made a lame joke about how he was there because he’d been “been trying to find a show that Michelle actually watched,” as opposed to “all those news shows [where] she’s like” click, click, click. Obama held up his hand like he was pointing a remote control at the telly.

Now I realize Obama’s aim was (1) to flatter his hosts and (2) to portray the first lady as just another normal American with no interest in hard news. Still, isn’t it just a little insulting to get everyone giggling about how your wife insists on having her current events served up lite and fluffy?

This time around, addressing his much-buzzed-about crooning at an event in Harlem, Obama shared that Michelle “gets jealous” when he sings in public. “She thinks this is kind of a private thing.”

Again, I appreciate the president’s desire to telegraph a regular-couple-in-a-regular-marriage kinda image. But surely he can come up with a way to establish faux intimacy with women that doesn’t make the first lady out to be an insecure mate who feels threatened when her hunky hubby unleashes his inner Al Green in front of others. In a word, blech.

Make no mistake, I dig The View. The hosts do what they do well. They get great guests. They have good debates. And, despite catering to an audience of women—who, conventional wisdom has it, are turned off by conflict and confrontation—those gals can get fired up. Churlish, even. Heck, Joy and Whoopi may be the only people I’ve ever seen put Bill O’Reilly back on his heels.

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Still, there is a fine line between pandering and patronizing. And when Obama is kicking it on The View, he has a tendency to step all over that line. He’d better hope all those charming stories and dizzying smiles are enough to keep most viewers from caring.