Late Night

Obama on Jay Leno: President Gets Softball Treatment (Video)

You’d hardly know from Jay Leno’s softball questions Tuesday night that Obama was presiding over a tanking economy.

Paul Drinkwater / NBC

Barack Obama is looking long in the tooth.

His face is creased and lined, his head has been invaded and occupied by an army of gray hairs, and—at least while sitting next to Jay Leno, a spicy meatball of a man—his skinny frame has a physical fragility that wasn’t apparent, say, only a year into his bone-crushing presidency.

“Michelle thinks I look old. But that’s okay—she still thinks I’m cute,” the president confided to the host of NBC’s Tonight Show Tuesday in one of his periodic visits to late-night television to shore up his insomniac base and deliver his stump speech—in conversational tones and punctuated by the occasional witticism—in the run-up to the next election.

Obama couldn’t have found a more willing accomplice. Leno—who wears his American flag pin on the right lapel, in contrast to the president’s flag-on-left—might just as well have been scripted by David Axelrod. Unlike The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who piercingly challenged Obama with one tough question after another and at one point called him “dude” during a fascinating appearance a year ago, Leno seemed content to provide the nation’s top Democrat with an informercial masquerading as a guest-shot.

“The bad news is that your approval ratings are at 41 percent,” the sit-down comic informed his guest. “The good news is you’re still three times better than Congress. They’re at 13 percent. You’re killing! You’re killing!”

All Obama had to do was to laugh appreciatively.

“The thing that angers me,” Leno told Obama, was “when Mitch McConnell [the Republican leader in the Senate] said ‘our goal is to make you a one-term president.’ How is that a goal?”

All Obama had to do was to agree appreciatively.

It was, as far as it went, a politically effective appearance. The underlying reality is still pretty daunting—the lousy economy, chronically high unemployment, and no clear notion that things will get better—but the president made of the most of it. The constant applause for nearly every syllable he uttered might have annoyed some of the independents that the White House is so eager to win back, but that’s a small point. Obama is ready-made for this format: charming, relaxed, sober where appropriate (as when he was talking about Gaddafi’s death or the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq) and suitably cool in the McLuhanesque sense.

And it seems that he stuck to the laugh-lines provided by his (or maybe even Leno’s) writing staff and delivered them expertly: There was no presidential freelancing, as with that unfortunate gaffe during a previous Leno appearance about bowling and the Special Olympics, that would have required a post-show apology.

The president scored consistently.

When Leno asked him about Republicans complaining about the troop withdrawal from Iraq, Obama retorted witheringly: “It’s a shock that they opposed something I proposed.”

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On the first lady’s healthy-eating campaign: “Michelle loves French fries. She loves pizza. She loves chicken. Just in moderation.” But the president said he has tried to dissuade her from handing out just fruit and raisins for Halloween. “The White House is gonna get egged if this keeps up,” he recounted telling her. “You need to throw some candy in there.”

In his capacity as everyman sports fan, he also called the current pro basketball lockout “heartbreaking,” urging the players and owners to find a way to get along, and expressed regret that “my Chicago White Sox” are not in the World Series.

He declined Leno’s invitation to pick a favorite between the Texas Rangers (the team George W. Bush once co-owned) and the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I do not take sides,” Obama said. “Unless it’s my side.”

That was pretty obvious.