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Why Obama Wanted to Appear on "Colbert"

Why Obama Wanted to Appear on "Colbert"

By Alexis Simendinger - December 9, 2014

President Obama is chasing his political base this week, one media interview at a time.

Latinos? On Tuesday, he’ll tape discussions with Telemundo and Univision hosts about his immigration executive actions, which he announced in November. He’ll be piggybacking on a Nashville immigration event that he’s headlining the same day touting positive economic contributions by immigrants.

Young people? On Monday, the president poked fun at the criticism that late-night comedy shows are a news format “beneath his dignity.” With broad, indulgent smiles, plus a straight face for the punch lines, Obama parried with Stephen Colbert during a “Colbert Report” show taped earlier in the day in front of a student audience at George Washington University.

African-Americans? Black Entertainment Television on Monday evening also aired an interview with the president, which was taped Dec. 5 in the White House. Obama, offering no smiles on BET, described his reactions in the wake of a string of deaths among young black males during encounters with white police officers. “I’m being pretty explicit about my concern,” the president said. “This is an American problem.”

In the parlance of the White House, Obama needs “specialty” media to speak to his base of supporters wherever he can find him. His advisers believe changes at traditional news media outlets and an evolution in the way many American consumers find their news and information dictate that Obama explain his policies to network and cable anchors as well as entertainers, to newspaper columnists as well as black and Spanish-language media outlets.

BET offered a portal through which Obama could tap into a primarily African-American audience so he could describe his responses to the killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York by police officers who subsequently were not indicted by grand juries. It was “an opportunity to reach an audience that has been closely watching” the events in Ferguson, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told the White House press corps last week. 

The large and diverse White House press corps, which covers the Obama presidency wherever he goes, is not “the most efficient” way to communicate the president’s positions when he’s searching for particular segments of the electorate, or trying to reach the broadest audience he can fashion, White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer explained over the weekend during an interview with CNN.  

With Colbert and BET, Obama repeated and in some cases expanded on ideas he’d expressed during speeches and remarks previously covered by traditional news media. On Monday, the pairing of a somber BET interview about racial divisions in America (Obama described Garner’s chokehold death as a “tragedy”) and a Comedy Central appearance with plenty of yuks (Colbert asked Obama for the nuclear codes) offered audiences different takes on a president who vows to be impactful for two more years.

The closest Obama came to making news was his assertion that federal leverage over state and local law enforcement to stop killing unarmed black suspects will be exerted through the resources and equipment Washington provides.

“We fund a lot of jurisdictions,” he told BET. Those law enforcement operations that don’t embrace federally recommended best practices and training aimed at rooting out biases will discover that federal funding will become “less available,” he said.

On Colbert’s show, the president participated in a comedy sketch in which he portrayed the comedian doing a rhetorical takedown of Obama and his policies. There were plenty of digs aimed at GOP critiques of Obamacare, the president’s reputation for arrogance, his alleged power grabs and veto threats, at House Republican opposition to administration-backed legislation, and jabs at Fox News.

The president’s mirth seemed most spontaneous when he read a scripted joke aimed at Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who campaigned in Kentucky for re-election while condemning Obama’s policies and promising conservatives Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act.

It wasn’t just the joke that prompted laughter from the young audience. Obama’s spontaneous smirk conveyed his message.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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