Selling soap flakes


Let's discuss: What do we think about President Obama's scheduled gig tonight on Jay Leno's couch? Is this the ultimate downsizing of presidential dignity - or a shrewd move to bypass the Washington press corps ("the filter," as President Bush called them) and connect with the show's heartland audience?

It's a little weird. He can't exactly mimic the patter of the average entertainer ("I'm opening at Caesars in Vegas on the 12th"), nor can he sit there and joke about the economy ("Jay, it's so bleak on Wall Street that even the yuppie apple-sellers are getting laid off"...rimshot from the drummer). Nor is Leno likely to ask anything that would discomfit Obama, since his goal is always to make his guests feel comfortable. And as an interviewer, Leno isn't exactly Tim Russert. Or Jon Stewart. He's much closer to David Letterman, and that's no compliment.

So it's certainly a great opportunity for Obama to flash his choppers, restate broad themes, and engage in a nuance-free conversation that will undoubtedly be scripted in advance. All told, just another milestone in the incremental erasure of the line separating statecraft and stagecraft.

The flip side of the argument is that politicians have long been celebrities, that television has long been used as a crucial instrument in political persuasion (beginning with JFK), and that personality is a crucial instrument in selling policy. Granted, no sitting president has ever appeared on a comedy chat show, but that final barrier was bound to fall.

As I've written before, John McCain has logged as many late-night appearances as Lindsay Lohan. Al Gore was a sitting vice president when he showed up on David Letterman's couch in 1993, to shatter a government ashtray with a hammer (it had something to do with his reinventing-government initiative). Bill Clinton, as a '92 candidate, played his sax on Arsenio Hall's show and took a question on MTV about whether he wore briefs or boxers (answer: the latter). And you can trace this trend all the way back to the old Tonight Show of the early '60s, when Jack Paar hosted Richard Nixon (who played the piano) and Robert F. Kennedy.

Yeah, it's superficial; smart politics often is. Jay Leno has five million viewers, most of whom are probably not hyperventilating fans of the cable news shoutfests. And some Republican strategists noted this morning (hat tip, Chris Cillizza of The Fix) that Leno's audience is heavily white, working class, and independent/Republican. So this will be one more test of whether Obama's power of personality can trump the restiveness of the American middle.

Obama's presidential appearance is unprecedented, but, on the other hand, it was Joseph Kennedy - 50 years ago - who recognized the importance of a likable image; in his words, "we're going to sell Jack like soap flakes." Indeed, There's no need for Leno to take any commercial breaks. Obama is the commercial.

Meanwhile, regarding the aforementioned political woes of Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd (see Tuesday's post), they have just gotten worse. On CNN late yesterday, he admitted that, as a negotiator of government bailout rules, he agreed to the provision which allowed the AIG buccaneers to run wild.

After saying earlier this week that he played no such role, he said yesterday that he had followed the lead of Treasury officials who last month asked him to water down an amendment that had capped bonuses for executives at companies receiving bailout money. In his words, "I agreed reluctantly. I was changing the amendment because others were insistent."

Dodd, as I mentioned earlier, is up for re-election next year. Do I smell burnt toast?