“I’m not too intimidating, I don’t think.”
President Obama was telling Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan that Malia’s high school prom date had nothing to fear. But it will hardly be surprising if detractors and kibitzers from both political parties use that bit of self-reflection to diagnose one of the fundamental problems afflicting the Obama White House.
Nobody seems to be afraid of the guy. That, according to conventional Washington wisdom, is a major reason why his political and policy agendas are stuck in a ditch on Capitol Hill, and why Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Supreme Ayatolla, Ali Khamenei, seem to view the Leader of the Free World with something less than shock and awe.
When Kelly told the president “We’re terrified!” and Michael claimed “We’re scared to death!”, they were simply being the big kidders we all know them to be.
The president has been having a tough time of it lately—a blossoming scandal at the Veterans Administration, foreign policy troubles that have only gotten worse, and his own job approval ratings down in the basement—so it’s understandable that he’d seek sweet relief by appearing on Friday’s installment of Live With Kelly & Michael. After all, with the notable exception of Jerry Springer, daytime television, with its largely female viewership, is a combat-free environment, potentially allowing an embattled politician to communicate his message unchallenged.
Yet, in a sit-down that was taped at the White House on Thursday, Obama—his legs crossed in relaxed mode—might have been charming, self-deprecating, earnest, and appealing, but he did little to help himself out of his political rut and probably even dug in deeper.
Asked straight-up by Strahan whether he would ask for Eric Shinseki's resignation as Secretary of Veterans' Affairs, Obama promised to “have a serious conversation with him about whether he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it,” but not before spending two minutes trying to contextualize the scandal with a bowlful of warm verbal porridge that didn’t conceal the rat’s head popping up in the middle.
Hearing the president ladle praise on the quality of the VA’s medical services, and claim credit for reducing veterans homelessness by 25 percent, while distancing himself from historical “backlogs” and “inefficiencies,” many viewers had to wonder what planet he is on. Obama might have been factually correct in many of his assertions, but he was tonally discordant—and politically out of this world. (Later on Friday morning Obama accepted Shinseki’s resignation.)
Indeed, he brought more obvious passion to a discussion of the perils of concussions in high school and college sports—the subject of an all-day White House summit—than to the infuriating incompetence and possible criminality occurring (at least, organizationally) right under his nose.
In another, possibly problematic, point in the session, Obama stopped just short of endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, and seemed to convey that he considers Vice President Biden—who has openly mused about a 2016 candidacy—an also-ran.
“We’re buddies,” he said of his former secretary of state, who ran against him 2008 in an often-acrid primary battle. “I always admired her. As soon as she got here, she couldn’t have been more effective and more loyal, and since that time is a really, really good friend.”
And here’s the money quote that is apt to give Joe Biden fits: “I don’t know what she’s gonna decide to do, but I know if she were to run for president, I think she’d be very effective at that.” He relegated his vice president, meanwhile, to a group of “some hardworking, effective…people around me…and I love them to death.”
As required on daytime television chatfests, the president also revealed some personal details: He generally goes to bed at 2 a.m., after reading through his briefing papers, and gets up at 7 a.m. for a daily workout. He has no plans to dye his graying hair. “I see Michelle in the hair salon, and it’s just too much work. It takes my barber 20 minutes to cut my hair.”
He told Ripa that if Michelle Obama ever told him she’d like to run for office herself, “I would say, ‘Where did you take my wife?’ Had there been an alien body-snatching going on? One thing I can promise you: Michelle will not run for office.”
He indicated he wasn’t mad at an aggressive player in a pickup basketball game a couple of years ago who inadvertently split Obama’s lip with an errant elbow, requiring the president to get 12 stitches. “I’m not sure he got invited back,” Obama confided, “but I did send him a picture [taken at the moment of the injury by a White House photographer] and wrote him, ‘You’re the only man who ever got away with cold-cocking the president.’ ”
He also noted how “jarring” it was to see Malia, his daughter in high heels for the first time when she went to that first prom. He would not say if she had a male date.
At one point, Strahan asked him what he’d most like to do if he could just be a normal person.
“I’d take a walk,” the president answered, and there was a dreamy look in his eyes. “I would walk through this gate…I might walk out to the Lincoln Memorial and sit on there. Maybe I’d wander around and find myself at a little outdoor café or something and just sit and watch people go by. The thing you miss most about being president is just anonymity.”
There was more genuine heartfelt feeling in that particular answer than any of the others Obama gave.