Sometimes history happens, but nothing really happens. Such was the case when President Obama decided to make an appearance on comedian Marc Maron’s popular WTF (yes, it means what you think it mean) podcast, which is known for deep-dive interviews that get intensely personal. It’s a format that works, garnering Maron more than 500 million downloads, an autobiographical sitcom, forthcoming talk-style show, and the title of “best podcast ever” for his Louie CK episodes. When the president’s presence on it was announced last week—it aired this morning, and can be heard, free, here—the Internet universe was ablaze with the potential for a behind-the-polish look at the leader of the free world.
Alas, we did not get one.
No stranger to the less-than-mainstream media, having even done Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns Web show, Obama and his communications team knew what they were getting into, and what they were doing. It’s possible, even likely, that Maron, who has proven to be an excellent interviewer, did not. Usually gruff and brandishing a trademark in-your-face interview style, Maron was subdued, understandable when one considers the “tent full of Secret Service” in his driveway and “sniper on the roof” across the street. But once Obama sat down in “the garage”—Maron’s podcast is generally conducted literally in his garage-cum-studio—the hope was the usually irascible host would wrest some juice from his seemingly reserved guest. Instead, all we got was an hour and 15 minutes of slightly more colloquial rhetoric.
They opened with a discussion of the Charleston shooting–this was recorded last Friday—and Obama’s oft-vocalized frustration at having to address the nation regarding these sorts of tragedies. The president chided Congress for not enacting stronger gun laws in the wake of Sandy Hook, claiming that was one of the only times he was frustrated enough to almost lose his temper during his presidency, and spoke at length about the state of race relations in the country.
But even casually dropping the N-word and addressing a topic that is at the forefront of our American culture, albeit one that needs to be addressed—
“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n----- in public… That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
—was not in the vein of the WTF podcast’s usual flow, and sounded more like a potential sound bite than intimate interaction.
The failure of Congress to act was a recurring theme throughout the show, as were conversationally injected bullet points about the successes of his administration—health care, jobs, the economy, ending wars, and asking, and answering himself, “Are we better off now that we were four years ago? The answer is unequivocally yes.”
But while Obama spoke conversationally, it was hardly a conversation. Maron was all but silent, interjecting only a few times, as Obama spoke at length.
The man knew his intended audience, claiming his appearance on the podcast was an attempt to reach those “Americans who are less dug in” to the political extremism that grips the nation. He spoke at length to provide background on why he pushed for the policies that he did, and that’s where this experiment failed. People listen to the WTF podcast to hear those deep, dark Behind the Music-type stories, the unfiltered, candid background that forms the core of the people being interviewed, and here we only got the usual topical information. Obama spoke about college, and how having a “little Hawaii on the mind” gets him through the frustration of dealing with a deadlocked bureaucracy, but we didn’t learn anything new. For a president whose approval rates are dropping and who is consistently vilified by the partisan media and his rivals, this was a dropped ball, a missed opportunity to be a human being and win the hearts and minds of his people, or at least become a relatable figure.
Sure, he had a few anecdotes and quips along the way, such as saying, in response to the spike in gun sales after mass-shooting events by gun lovers afraid of losing their weapons, “there are black helicopters, but we generally don’t deploy them,” but even this felt scripted, contrived. Canned.
As Obama said, when describing why he’d make a better president and candidate this election cycle, “I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless.”
This may be true, but sometimes showing people that little bit of fear, that touch of unpolished humanity, is the real gift. And it’s a gift that, frankly, the expectant WTF listeners weren’t given.