In what commentators are calling an effort by the White House to reach out to Middle America, President Obama went on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno to talk about a wide range of topics, including Trayvon Martin, the economy, NSA surveillance, Russia and John McCain.
Observers saw the president’s Leno appearance as an attempt to balance the comedian’s increased criticism of the Obama administration during his late-night monologues and speak to a segment of the public that might not have voted for him last November. Last month, the approval rating for the president took a hit, dropping three points since June to 45 percent.
As Politico pointed out, “The president’s always come off as more of a David Letterman guy, and many of his core supporters certainly are.”
But on the Air Force One flight to California for the taping, White House press secretary Jay Carney refused to take the bait on whether Obama would find an audience on Leno’s show that he wouldn’t get on Letterman.
“I’ll leave it to the media critics to make those kinds of distinctions,” Carney said.
But the gambit appeared to work, as Obama joked and did plenty of laughing and smiling, once again showing that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. During the interview, Leno gave the president a chance to go after Republicans for their refusal to negotiate on issues such as repairing America’s crumbling infrastructure.
“Why is that a partisan issue?” Leno asked, wondering aloud why Republicans won’t work with Obama to set up a WPA-style corps to rebuild crumbling bridges and to be sent to rehabilitate Detroit, among other projects.
“Used to be Republicans and Democrats, they loved cutting those ribbons, and we’ve got a bunch of construction workers who aren’t working right now — they’ve got the skills, they want to get on the job and it would have a huge impact on the economy not just now, but into the future,” Obama said. “I’m just going to keep on pushing Republicans to join with us and let’s try to do it.”
Leno asked Obama about NSA intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia, giving the president an opportunity to say: “We don’t have a domestic spying program. What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an email address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat. And that information is useful. But what I’ve said before I want to make sure I repeat, and that is we should be skeptical about the potential encroachments on privacy. None of the revelations show that government has actually abused these powers, but they’re pretty significant powers.”
Leno got a laugh when he asked about the president’s “bromance” that seems to be ongoing with former presidential rival Sen. John McCain.
“I remember you two had that lovers’ quarrel for a while. And, oh, now, you’re, oh — well, you’re best friends,” Leno said. “What happened?”
“That’s how a classic romantic comedy goes, right? Initially you’re not getting along, and then you keep on bumping into each other,” Obama said, to laughter from the studio audience.
“I mean, what changed? Who saw the light?” Leno asked.
“John McCain and I have a number of philosophical differences, but he is a person of integrity. He is willing to say things regardless of the politics,” the president said. “The fact that he worked hard with a group of Democratic and Republican senators on immigration reform; they passed a bill in the Senate that will make sure that folks who are here illegally have to pay back-taxes and pay a penalty and get to the back of the line, but over time have a pathway to citizenship, and make sure that we’re strengthening our borders. He went ahead and passed that even though there are some questions in his own party. So I think that he deserves credit for being somebody who is willing to go against the grain of his own party sometimes. It’s probably not good for me to compliment him on television.”
Leno also asked Obama about his speech last month on race and slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
“I think all of us were troubled by what happened. And any of us who were parents can imagine the heartache that those parents went through,” Obama said. “It doesn’t mean that Trayvon was a perfect kid — none of us were. We were talking offstage — when you’re a teenager, especially a teenage boy, you’re going to mess up, and you won’t always have the best judgment. But what I think all of us agree to is, is that we should have a criminal justice system that’s fair, that’s just. And what I wanted to try to explain was why this was a particularly sensitive topic for African-American families, because a lot of people who have sons know the experience they had of being followed or being viewed suspiciously.
“We all know that young African-American men disproportionately have involvement in criminal activities and violence — for a lot of reasons, a lot of it having to do with poverty, a lot of it having to do with disruptions in their neighborhoods and their communities, and failing schools and all those things. And that’s no excuse, but what we also believe in is, is that people — everybody — should be treated fairly and the system should work for everyone. “