With his approval ratings diving and the outlook for his party in November's mid-term elections dimming, President Barack Obama shifted into campaign mode yesterday as the guest on The View, a daytime talk show with five co-hosts including Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters. It went pretty well until the Jersey Shore question.
"I don't know who Snookie is," he responded flatly when asked about the curvaceous star of this season's most-watched – and possibly most crass – American reality show. He may have recovered himself somewhat with a follow-up about music. Mr Obama assured his interrogators that he has a packed iPod where Maria Callas sits alongside Jay-Z.
Although he has appeared on The View twice before – as a candidate and an author – this was the first time that a sitting American president has visited a daytime talk show. The hour-long appearance was taped on Wednesday, when Mr Obama was in New York for two fund-raising dinners, one at the home of the Vogue editor Anna Wintour. With all-female hosts and an audience that is mostly women, the programme offered the President an opportunity to reconnect with a segment of the electorate that has shown him affection in the past but which, like independents, another pivotal constituency, has shown signs of souring on him as he reaches the half-way mark of his first term.
Alternatively, his going to Ms Walters et al may be interpreted as a sign of political desperation. A new Ipsos-Reuters poll showed Mr Obama's approval rating at 48 per cent, down two points from June. Since 1962, any sitting president scoring less than 50 per cent has seen his party lose an average of 41 seats in the House of Representatives in mid-term elections. The Republicans need a net gain of 39 in November to take control.
Seated on a curving couch with his hosts, Mr Obama seemed relaxed but willing to accept that the going recently has been hard, noting that the US not only is trying to struggle out of a deep recession but has had to deal also with two wars and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He also accepted that if there was a "sense of hopefulness and unity" after his election, it dissipated very rapidly.
Mr Obama sought to blame that shift first on the media for preferring to report conflict than harmony. The steps he took to try to right the economy were also unavoidably contentious, like bailing out the car industry, he said. More than that, he went on, the partisan struggle never stops. "Unfortunately, we live in a time when people are thinking about the next election instead of the next generation," he said.
Not all Democrats were sure The View was the right place for him to be. Among the critics was Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. "I wouldn't put him on Jerry Springer too, right?" he said. "I think the President of the United States has to go on serious shows. I'm not sure he has to go on The View to be open to questions."
But the White House defended the decision. "Given the difficulty of reaching people in this hyperactive media environment, we look for opportunities to reach people in environments that are not traditional forums for political newsmakers," explained Dan Pfeiffer, a White House spokesperson. Mr Obama himself, meanwhile, gave a less sophisticated (and possibly rather less convincing) reason for the choice. "I was trying to find a show that Michelle actually watched," he said.
Some questions were more on the frivolous side: no, Mr Obama was not invited to Chelsea Clinton's wedding this weekend; no, his daughters are not dating boys yet; and his official Twitter account was not his own work but was maintained by "some 20-year-old". But Ms Walters and her friends pitched more serious questions on everything from the recovery, to controversies about race and Afghanistan. On race, he became thoughtful.
"There is a reptilian side of our brain," he began. "If someone who looks different or talks different, there is a part of us that is cautious and we have to fight against that. It's a constant struggle... there is nobody in America who does not at some point have to think about their racial attitudes".
Political broadcasts (US style)
* Political historians will never agree on a single moment that propelled Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992, but surely most would mention his appearance in June of that year on The Arsenio Hall Show when he played "Heartbreak Hotel" on his saxophone, breaking through with younger voters. The syndicated show ended production two years later, but by then Clinton had won the White House, where he remained for two terms. His other big TV moment in that election year was more tricky – a poignant attempt to deflect allegations of infidelity on 60 Minutes, with Hillary by his side.
* John McCain had a reputation for doing well at town-hall type meetings because of his so-called "straight-talk" banter on topics like the war in Iraq and government overspending. So putting him on The View in September 2008 seemed like a good idea. Wrong. He was mercilessly grilled by its co-hosts for running TV ads against Barack Obama that perhaps weren't entirely accurate. Joy Behar asked McCain: "There are ads running from your campaign... Now we know that those two ads are untrue, they are lies. And yet, you at the end of it say you approve these messages. Do you really approve these?"
* She had been skewered week after week by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, so finally in early October 2008, with the election just two weeks away, Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, accepted that the only possible course of action was to appear on the show herself to demonstrate that she had a sense of humour. Anyone hoping to see the real Palin and the faux Palin (Fey) collide on the set was disappointed. But there were some good moments, not least when the actor Alec Baldwin mistook the then Alaska governor for Fey. Apologising he said: "You are way hotter in person".