The "Tonight Show" President

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Mar 18, 2009 3:16 PM
Despite the defeat of Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential race, Bill Clinton owes  Barack Obama a debt of gratitude.  He's making the former president look better and better.

I wasn't a big fan of Bill Clinton's decisions to play his saxophone on Arsenio  Hall, or reveal what kind of underwear he wears on MTV.  Trying to turn politics into entertainment demeans both, and efforts to transform the American president into the "American Idol" smacks of the cults of personality that totalitarian countries cultivate for dictators -- not the kind of relationship citizens of a republic should have with the person they have elected to lead them for four years.

Notwithstanding Clinton's forays into the entertainment arena, however, there was never any doubt about whether he knew his stuff.  He was clearly a policy wonk, versed in the details (and even the minutia) of public affairs.  That was obvious, even to those of us who disagreed with him on a regular basis.

But is the same true of President Obama?  Tonight, he becomes the first sitting President ever to appear on a late-night entertainment chat show.  That's not, of course, because he is desperate to find a way to circumvent the elite media and get his message across; for the most part, the press has been little more than water-carriers for the President.

Rather, it emphasizes the degree to which the President embraces -- and hopes to use -- the cult of personality that has grown up around him.  But, as troublingly, it raises the question of his preparedness. 

If the President is willing to visit with Jay Leno, why not counterbalance it with a sit-down with political journalists  -- people who will ask him tough questions about policy, and then follow up?

It's easy to go on Jay Leno . . . just like it's easy to read off a teleprompter.  So the President may sound good, but it does nothing to convince people that he has the grasp of policy issues that a President should have.

The campaign is over.  It's time for the President to lose the teleprompters, stop the campaign tour, and show the American people that he knows his stuff and he's doing something -- not just talking.  In the end, that's the difference between a president and, say, a television talk show host.