Published September 22, 2009
NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama sat down with late night TV talk show host David Letterman on Monday, wrapping up a blitz of television appearances as he tries to build support for his top domestic priority, an ambitious health care overhaul plan.
Obama, America's first black president, also had his most irreverent answer yet on the question of whether some of the reaction to his health care plan is driven at least partly by racism.
"Was Jimmy Carter onto something ... was this unease or poor decorum rooted in racism, or is that just something to talk about?" Letterman asked.
"First of all, I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election," Obama said to huge laughs from Letterman and the audience.
Letterman quipped: "How long have you been a black man?"
Obama replied: "So the American people, I think, gave me this extraordinary honor. That tells you a lot, I think, a lot about where the country is at."
By the time Obama came on stage to the taping of the "Late Show," Letterman had offered up 10 reasons why in the world the president had agreed to do it.
Among Letterman's theories: Obama said yes without thinking about it, or as Letterman put it, "Like Bush did with Iraq."
But Obama had other ideas. It turns out he was listening when Letterman had bantered with a woman in the audience who brought a potato in the shape of a heart to the show.
Obama told Letterman: "The main reason I'm here? I want to see that heart-shaped potato."
The woman tossed the potato to Letterman.
She agreed to let Obama keep it. Said the president: "This is remarkable."
The Top 10 list was edited out of the broadcast, but it was available on the CBS Web site. A spokesman said the length of the Obama interview caused the edit.
Letterman covered a number of topics with Obama -- many of them serious -- in a taping that ran about 40 minutes.
On the economy, Obama offered a sober prediction as the country deals with 9.7 percent unemployment, the worst level since 1983. He said he expects unemployment will be a "big problem" for at least another year. But he also said the economy will rebound even stronger.
On the war in Afghanistan, Obama said he knows some people want him to bring troops home, and others are calling for him to increase U.S. force levels to combat the insurgency. The top U.S. commander there is warning the war could be lost without more troops.
Obama said he won't make a decision on sending in more troops, though, until he completes a comprehensive review of the war effort and settles on his next strategy.
"I'm going to be asking some very hard questions," Obama said.
Obama's visit made him the first sitting president to appear on Letterman's program. He had been on Letterman's show five times before, though, most recently in September 2008. He was elected in November.
The White House said it was a good way for him to reach yet another audience.
After taping Letterman's show, the president returned to his midtown Manhattan hotel and quietly emerged a while later in gym clothes and a baseball cap. His destination: the church across the street for some basketball with his aides.
Tomorrow starts Obama's main mission in New York: His participation in the United Nations General Assembly.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.