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President Barack Obama was a guest on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." It was the first time a sitting American president appeared on the show.
There is little disputing that right now Barack Obama is the world’s biggest celebrity. Movie stars want to meet him. Foreign leaders want his autograph. Americans just want to shake his hand.
But lately it seems the popular president has become a one-man stimulus plan for the television industry.
Obama did a recent promo for “The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien” during the host's first week on the job. He participated in a skit via video on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” NBC was taking pre-orders for its “Inside the Obama White House” DVD ($19.99) the day after the two-part special aired. Now ABC is promoting its special Obama access June 24: shooting “Good Morning America” from the North Lawn – including exclusive interviews with the president and the first lady – holding a primetime health care Q&A with Obama in the East Room, and anchoring “Nightline” from the Blue Room in the executive mansion.
The White House had cleared Cannon in to do the spot. The rapper/actor was on the North Lawn giving his pitch while the president of South Korea’s motorcade rolled by in the background.
“Talent is taking over the world,” he shouted, as the pillars of White House gleamed in the distance.
The president and first lady have been vocal since the election about wanting a more accessible White House that’s open to the public. But when Cannon showed up it all started to feel like too much to some White House observers, who groaned that this sort of on-site mish-mashing of pop culture and government is cheapening the executive office. TV host Bill Maher summed it up this week when he accused Obama of being obsessed with his television appearances.
“I don’t want my president to be a TV star,” Maher said on his HBO television show.
“You don’t have to be on television every minute of every day—you’re the president, not a rerun of ‘Law & Order,' ” he continued. “TV stars are too worried about being popular and too concerned about being renewed.”
But, in addition to getting to showcase his image and his message on the tube, Obama sells.
These days an endorsement from the popular commander-in-chief is as good as it gets. After Obama said he was reading the novel Netherland, sales of the book increased 40 percent. In fact, it’s been doing so well the publisher, Vintage Books, moved up the paperback release date and launched an advertising campaign highlighting Obama’s readership. Michelle Obama, too, holds her own – selling out cardigans just by wearing them to lunch. And more than 9 million viewers tuned in for “Inside the Obama White House.”
As Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary, told the Wall Street Journal in April: “We have the best brand on Earth: the Obama brand.”
Everyone is trying to cash in, said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. He pointed to Obama’s O’Brien cameo as an example.
“I imagine Conan was walking on air with that endorsement,” Thompson said. “It's the endorsement of endorsements.”
Cannon was even willing to settle for the first dog.
“I want Bo,” he told Urban Radio reporter April Ryan. “We like dogs on the show. I got a Frisbee. … I'm just gonna throw it around.”
The “Talent” host was upfront about trying to use the White House and its real-life cast of characters to help publicize his show.
“We up here politicking,” he said, “trying to see if we can get somebody to do a cameo, anybody.”
The White House said Cannon’s stand-up and the ABC and NBC news events are simply Obama living up to his promise of accessibility.
“This is just another example of our efforts to open up the White House and give more Americans an inside look,” said Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest. "We’re trying to engage Americans who consume various different kinds of media.”
An NBC spokeswoman said the network chose to film at the White House because it’s “iconic to the nation’s capital” and the show “celebrates America.”
Other presidents have tried to expand the media umbrella. Bill Clinton had local weather forecasters deliver their reports back home from the North Lawn when he was working on climate change. The Bush White House put up a giant tent on the North Portico to have talk radio hosts there to interview Cabinet and administration officials.
“It’s always had a policy goal with it,” said presidential historian Martha Kumar, who works out of the White House press room.
Earnest said Obama’s “prominence in media benefits our policy agenda,” and that the Obama administration has struck a balance amid the vast interest in the president and his family.
“There’s a way to be both accessible but also appropriately respectful to the house and the presidency,” Earnest said. “The American people expect both things.”
The recent smattering of Obama-TV, leaves open musings of possibilities to come.
With NBC and ABC getting exclusive access, what’s in store on CBS? (Although the network has already gotten Obama White House time via “60 Minutes,” Katie Couric and Bob Schieffer).
And with Obama doing this much TV at the White House after only five months, what could be next? Thompson said he doesn't know but that based on Obama's moves so far, "Virtually anything can happen."