In stark contrast with last year, President Barack Obama did not schedule any one-on-one meetings with world leaders during last week’s opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. White House press secretary Jay Carney explained in a press conference that the president had a very busy schedule, but it wasn’t long before the media picked up on one meeting Obama did have time for in New York — an appearance on “The View” with First Lady Michelle Obama.
Numerous media outlets speculated about the choice of Obama and his staff to make time for “The View” while passing on bilateral meetings with foreign leaders. He drew pointed criticism from Fox News. CBS and Reuters also reported on the lack of meetings as well as the Republican criticism of “The View” appearance, while The New York Times contrasted Obama’s talk show interview with the several meetings Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had lined up on her agenda. Even comedian Jon Stewart got in on the action, including a segment on The Daily Show poking fun at the decision. Some news reports included defenses of the decision, such as diplomat Rick Inderfuth’s statement on CBS that it was a “rational choice” on the campaign’s part because of the upcoming election, but nevertheless the decision dominated much of the news cycle during the few days surrounding the daytime show appearance.
In light of the media firestorm that ensued after this decision was made, it’s hard not to ask yourself — what were Obama and his staff thinking?
Perhaps they were thinking that daytime shows like “The View” offer an opportunity to reach out to large audiences who may not necessarily be politically engaged. And given the rise of audience fragmentation and the increased ways people can access political news, this has become more difficult. (According to TV by the Numbers, the Sept. 27 interview accomplished this, reaching more than 4.3 million viewers.) Perhaps they were thinking women represent a significant voting bloc for the Obama campaign, and, as The Wall Street Journal discussed in 2010, because the audience of “The View” is predominantly middle-aged females, the daytime show is becoming an increasingly important platform for candidates. Perhaps they were thinking that Obama could use an appearance with First Lady Michelle — the first one the two have made together on the show — to promote his image as a family man and discuss his marriage among more serious topics like Libya.
To be fair, I don’t know exactly what considerations played into the decision, but one thing’s for sure, Obama’s staff recognize the role of talk shows as an increasingly important campaign tool. And President Obama and his campaign staff aren’t the only ones who recognize the potential power of a talk show appearance.
The first appearances of presidential candidates on late-night talk shows was the 1960 campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on “The Tonight Show with Jack Paar,” according to Marie Jackson’s 2010 dissertation, “The late-night presidential strategy: A historical review of the first 40 years of presidential campaign use of late-night talk show appearances.” In her analysis, Jackson found that, since those first appearances, television coverage, including talk shows, put emphasis on candidates’ personality and character. At the same time, voters desire “likeable” candidates, and their evaluation of a candidate’s personality often weighs heavily in their vote. Talk shows give candidates an opportunity to show off their human side and “yuck it up” in an atmosphere that is typically less confrontational and intense than a traditional news show. According to Jackson’s research, these moments where candidates show a different side of themselves can in some cases improve a candidates’ standing in voters’ eyes more than a news soundbite or campaign ad.
In his analysis of talk show appearances by George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 (“Talking the Vote: Why Presidential Candidates Hit the Talk Show Circuit”), Matthew Baum also found that talk shows focused on the personal characteristics of candidates. Even when hosts like David Letterman, who Baum found to be the toughest on candidates by most accounts, asked candidates more difficult, issue-based questions, they were still not as pointed or complex as the questions posed on traditional television news programs. Through his research, Baum found that candidate appearances on talk shows gave candidates the opportunity to reach out to people who were less likely to seek out political news otherwise.
These two studies demonstrate that talk shows allow candidates an opportunity to craft their images in a less hostile environment. As Jeffrey Alexander argued in his book, The Performance of Politics, candidates essentially put on a performance during their campaigns in hopes of creating an image that resonates with voters and aligns with their values, such as the image of a family man. This has become more difficult because of the “fracturing of mass media,” said a Times’ correspondent quoted in Alexander’s book. Appearances on talk shows, which seem to be less mediated and filtered than other news platforms, allow candidates to present themselves as authentic and sincere.
These appearances don’t come without risks as John McCain learned the hard way when he was attacked on “The View” the day after Sarah Palin’s ABC interview. Alexander’s book recounts how one of the shows co-hosts, Joy Behar, attacked McCain for untrue political advertisements, proving that talk shows, which The New York Times called “a generally friendly territory for politicians,” can throw their share of political punches. Other risks include a bad performance by a candidate on a talk show that comes across as awkward or humorless, Baum said in her dissertation.
During this campaign, Romney seems to recognize these risks and has been more wary of talk shows, including “The View,” as noted by a Vanity Fair article. But although there are some risks, the potential of talk shows to boost a candidate’s image and approval rating cannot be ignored, which might be why Ann Romney has scheduled an upcoming appearance on Good Morning America.
So despite the media backlash for Obama’s appearance on “The View,” he and his staff might have made the right call — at least when it comes to the outcome of the election.