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Softball Questions and Their Perils

Public figures should always beware of the friendly interview. Our many years of media servitude have taught us that the most kindly questions tend to elicit the most embarrassing answers, and that an interviewer’s knowing nods of approval will invariably provoke an an unguarded interviewee into even further embarrassment. President Barack Obama, who has a marked fondness for the friendly interview, once again proves the point in his free-flowing conversation with Matt Yglesias at the Vox.com web site.
The president usually prefers to take his case to the likes of the 60 Minutes program, which has boasted it won’t play any “gotcha” tricks on him, or late night television comedians such as Jon Stewart and David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon, who invite him to join in on the hip humor, or the “Pimp With a Limp” radio show, which we suppose offers some sort of “street cred” without any of the “yo’ mama” sort of “dissing” that one usually endures to acquire, but he will occasionally reach out to more respectable but no less respectful publications. The ploy, alas, has never worked out well. Even with a former Clinton apparatchik-turned-ABC correspondent Obama found himself speaking of “my Muslim faith, he couldn’t schmooze with such a genial chap as Jay Leno without making Special Olympics jokes about his bowling skills, an appearance on the “Pimp With a Limp” radio show is humiliating in itself, and such a genteel publication as The Atlantic Monthly recently had him dismissing the Islamic State as a “jayvee team” of terrorism even as it was conquering a large swathe of the Middle East. Chatting with such an obsequious scribe as Matt Yglesias at such a fashionably liberal site as Vox.com was bound to be trouble.
The interview is divided between domestic politics and foreign affairs, and we’ll limit our outrage to the latter. That portion opens with a pretentious attempt to locate Obama’s foreign policy on a scale between “idealism” and “realism,” allowing the president to wisely position in himself somewhere between the extremes of Woodrow Wilson “out there with the League of Nations and imaging everybody holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ and imposing these wonderful rules everybody abides by,” and the “realist” camp that is “supporting dictators who happen to be our friend, and you’re cutting deals and solely pursuing the self-interest of our country as narrowly defined.” This is a familiar position for Obama, who also represents the country’s last choice between those who would rape the environment and enslave the working man or those who would do away with commerce altogether, which we assume is the theme of the domestic politics portion of the interview, and he could be confident that Yglesias wouldn’t offer any challenge. We would have been tempted to ask how Obama’s deference to the United Nations is any different than Wilson’s mania for the equally ineffectual League of Nations, or whether he was more annoyed by Wilson’s decision to enter World War I just because of some German sabotage and the sinking of American vessels and the proved plot to lead Mexico into a revanchist war against the United States or the unfortunate situation America would find itself in if the world were dominated by Prussian militarism, and if the deal that the administration is cutting with the dictators in Iran seemingly because they are not our friends is at all “realistic,” but that’s probably why we weren’t granted the interview.
There is much more similarly self-aggrandizing nonsense, including some concerned talk about the problem of “failed states” that neglects any mention of Islamic State-controlled Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Somalia or any of the other basket-cases that were recently cited as the administration’s great foreign policy success, and some talk about how we can nonetheless afford massive defense cuts while our debt service payments largely fund the Chinese military’s ongoing build-up, as well as some bragging about the withdrawal of troops from what is Islamic State-occupied Iraq, and of course Yglesias only invites him to ramble on with more howlers. Most noticed, at least in the conservative portion of the media, was Obama’s grousing about the media’s strange insistence on reporting the latest acts of Islamic terror rather than focusing on ore pressing problems such as “climate change.” Egged on by the seemingly helpful Yglesias, Obama likened it to the “if it bleeds it leads” formula that has your local news station reporting on the big pile-up on the interstate or the double homicide in the poor part of town rather than the colder-than-predicted weather. The president’s priorities seem markedly different than those of the public, which we suspect regards Islamic terrorism as a newsworthy concern, but no one at Vox.com is likely to raise the point.
Lulled by such awed acquiescence the president went on to mention “the folks” who were killed at “random target” in the aftermath of the slaughter of the staff of a French satirical magazine, as if the target that Islamic terrorists randomly chose just happened to turn out to be a kosher delicatessen where the “folks” just happened to be Jews, and that was too much for the even the mainstream to endure. At the White House press conference the unenviable spokesman Josh Earnest endured numerous questions about the characterization, and his efforts to dodge them all make for entertaining viewing. We notice the president wasn’t pressed by Yglesias about such “folks” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his countrymen, which we suppose is only polite, the Jewish question being such a sensitive one, but it would have also been fun. That would have lured the conversation into that unfriendly territory where public figures become guarded, though, and might not have been so revealing.

— Bud Norman

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A Less Than Optimal Campaign

What a sorry state of affairs for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign when he can’t even go on the Daily Show without feeding another bad news cycle.

In the latest of a series of missteps, the president appeared Thursday on Jon Stewart’s cable television comedy program and described the murder of four Americans during a Sept. 11 terror attack on the embassy in Libya as “not optimal.” The jarring understatement will likely be replayed on various other media, and repeatedly at the conservative outlets, which can’t be helpful to Obama’s cause.

The president’s many die-hard defenders will note that the questioner had introduced the term “optimal,” a slightly mitigating point, but it won’t spare him another day of damning headlines nor spare him the damage of the sound bite. Combined with the widely reported fact that Obama embarked on a fund-raising trip to Las Vegas in the immediate aftermath of the murders, the president’s description of the terror attack as a “bump in the road” during a later interview, and his many week’s of dissembling about the true nature of the incident, the latest statement is likely to bolster an ever more widely held impression that the president’s sympathy for the victims is, well, less than optimal.

Nor is the president in any position to complain that his critics are harping on a mere choice of words, having spent much of the day on harping on Mitt Romney’s brief mention during Tuesday’s debate of considering “binders full of women” while hiring workers during his term as Governor of Massachusetts. The president seemed to find this a most hilarious misstatement during Thursday’s stump speeching, as did several of the commentators at the friendlier cable news services, but after a day’s consideration we’re still unable to find exactly what’s wrong with Romney’s boast.

In a speech to a typically sycophantic crowd the president said that he doesn’t have to resort to binders to find qualified women to work for his administration, presumably because the resumes and background checks and other necessary paperwork are delivered on silver platters or some other such conveyance, but that only attests to Romney’s relative frugality. The tactic also provided unfriendly media such as this to remind readers that Obama’s White House has been described by a woman there as a “hostile workplace” and has a history of paying its women employees less than their male counterparts, and it’s unlikely that voters concerned with the dire state of the economy and the growing dangers of the international scene will agree that Romney’s admirable desire to find qualified women workers, through binders or any other means, are a more significant matter.

Let us hope that many voters will also be slightly irked by a reminder that Obama was appearing on the Daily Show. The appearance was in keeping with the president’s preference for presenting himself mainly on such lightweight programs as The View, Entertainment Tonight, and, as we never tire of mentioning, the Pimp With a Limp’s radio show. This schedule has solidified Obama’s standing as Celebrity in Chief, a title that probably impresses many people who won’t bother to find their way to the voting places, and while that might diminish his stature with the more serious-minded it usually has the compensating advantage of shielding the president from tough questions.

Stewart’s more awe-struck fans will insist that he’s a serious satirist in the tradition of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, and an influential conduit of the news to today’s youth, but he’s basically a guy who makes funny faces into the camera and flatters the pretensions of his slacker audience with sneers and snarkiness, and Obama had every reason to expect the usual gentle treatment. Indeed, Stewart’s unfortunate choice of the word “optimal” was seemingly intended to euphemize the situation as much as possible, making it all the more embarrassing that Obama was somehow able to turn it into a snippet for an upcoming Romney ad.

Tuesday’s debate was supposed to be the turning point for Obama’s recently besieged campaign, but all they got out of it was the futile efforts to exploit Romney’s binders, and more harm from the ongoing Libyan fiasco. One word won’t change the campaign, whether it’s “optimal” or “binders,” but there seems to be a cumulative effect of Obama’s self-inflicted wounds.

— Bud Norman