President to pioneer chat on late-night TV

By | March 19, 2009

Barack Obama, Jay LenoPresident Obama hasn’t been practicing one-liners, but he is going Thursday night where no sitting president has gone before: to a late-night comedy show.

Obama plans to be a guest on NBC’s The Tonight Show With Jay Leno at 11:35 p.m. ET. His press secretary says not to look for a comedy routine.

“I anticipate that a large amount of the discussion will center around the president’s economic plans, and the president’s economic ideas,” spokesman Robert Gibbs says. “And I think the president believes it’s a unique audience with which to explain those challenges and the decisions that he’s made.”

His appearance comes at a difficult moment. Obama’s administration is under fire for failing to stop insurance giant AIG from doling out hefty employee bonuses after accepting nearly $180 billion in federal bailout money. Congressional Republicans led by House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, are rebelling against Obama’s proposed budget, which calls for massive long-term deficits in the name of prompt recovery. And his poll numbers are slipping.

“It is a tense moment,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. But “nothing has rattled this guy yet, and Jay Leno’s not going to be the one to do it.”

Presidential candidates have a history of appearing on TV comedy and talk shows. Bill Clinton donned dark glasses and played his saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show; Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy appeared on TheTonight Show when they were running for office.

In announcing Obama would be the first president to sit in the guest chair, Leno called it “the greatest honor I’ve had since I’ve gotten this show.”

Obama’s appearance comes during a media blitz. On Wednesday, he appeared on ESPN, in an interview about the men’s college basketball championship tournament. He picked North Carolina for the second year in a row. On Sunday, Obama will appear on CBS’ 60 Minutes, and he will hold his second prime-time news conference Tuesday night.

Presidential historian Stephen Hess calls it all “a continuation of the permanent campaign” — going to the venues where many people get their news and information these days.

“This is clearly a president who is not camera-shy,” Thompson says. He doesn’t see any risk for Obama in going late-night.

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