It used to be that a president refrained from appearing on TV shows that might lower his stature by making him seem frivolous, pandering, or silly.
But that approach has become outmoded--a fact brought home by President Obama's return to Jay Leno's side last night. Obama's calculation is that Americans get their news and information in many non-traditional ways, such as through the late-night talk shows, in addition to news conferences, Oval Office speeches, and formal presidential statements. [See political cartoons about President Obama.]
Obama uses all of these formats, and he's wise to do so. The people who might see a news conference are often not the same people who watch Leno. And it hasn't stopped there. Obama has also appeared on the shows of David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey, and did a turn on "The View." [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
There's another advantage: The talk-show format allows viewers to see a president in a more relaxed and conversational setting, and this encourages them to think of their leader as a likeable person with a sense of humor. Much of these appearances are scripted, of course, but sometimes there's a ray of candor and an insight into a president's feelings.
During Obama's tete-a-tete with Leno, the president seemed relaxed and eager to chat. Wearing an open-necked shirt under his jacket, Obama noted that Americans are "fed up" with bickering in Washington and the way politicians put party and re-election ahead of the country. He defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. He said it's wrong to relish the death of any individual, including a brutal dictator such as Libya's Muammar Qadhafi. And he said he wasn't paying much attention to the Republican presidential race and won't do so until the field is narrowed. [See photos of unrest and celebration in Libya.]
It was a humanizing episode for the president, and allowed him to cast doubt on the perception that he is too cerebral and distant from everyday folks. It's a format that Obama's challengers would do well to blend more frequently into their repertoires.