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Hardball?? How Chris Matthews rolled over for Barack Obama

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FILE: April 26, 2011: NBC host Chris Matthews at the 2011 Time 100 Gala ceremony in New York.REUTERS

I’m not sure what Chris Matthews was doing with President Obama yesterday, but it wasn’t hardball.

It wasn’t even softball.

It was more like wiffle ball.

Everyone knew going in that the MSNBC host would be a sympathetic interviewer. But he knew he would be graded on his aggressiveness, so I expected at least a few fastballs. Uh uh.

Instead, in a half-hour sitdown, there was one challenging question. Just one.

It was as though Matthews was channeling Jay Carney.

Matthews is a likable guy with a passion for politics, but he left his interviewing chops at the door. The mile-a-minute man who jumps all over his guests let the president ramble on with long, discursive, three-part answers. At times Matthews acted like a political science professor. Maybe he was getting a reprise of the famous thrill up the leg.

This was clearly a home game for Obama.

The interview was on MSNBC, whose pundits often form a chorus of support for the president, despite some recent carping about his health care rollout. And Matthews is a former aide to Tip O’Neill and Jimmy Carter.

By staging the session on the campus of American University, the president had an actual cheering section of young people who were likely to be on his side.

The first question, about ObamaCare, simply invited the president to make his case on young folks signing up for coverage: “What’s your argument why they should do that?”

There was an unfocused question about NSA surveillance, then a clip from JFK, with this penetrating followup: “How do we get back that confidence that we can solve our man-made problems?”

Matthews quoted John Boehner as saying we can’t get anything done because of divided government, and asked if we are stuck in that situation.

The only attempt at a journalistic question was when Matthews quoted former White House aide Zeke Emanuel as saying there should have been a CEO type to oversee the ObamaCare program, asking why there wasn’t a “strong top-down” system in charge. But Obama delivered his familiar talking points, in a reflective mood that matched the low-key nature of the conversation.

I kept saying to myself, “Chris, jump in there, challenge him!” If  you’ve seen Matthews badger a Republican congressman, you know he’s capable of it. But that was not on the agenda.

Matthews’ curve-ball question was asking the president to compare two potential 2016 rivals, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Obama ducked, praising them both, as Matthews must have known he would. And then he let the president deliver a long, final disquisition without interruption.

Perhaps the White House was pleased. But in nearly three-quarters of an hour, Obama made little news. That’s what happens when you don’t have to hit major-league pitching.  

Talking to Women

This is kind of an eye-opener in 2013. But there are certainly land mines in running against female candidates.

“The National Republican Congressional Committee wants to make sure there are no Todd Akin-style gaffes next year,” Politico reports, “so it’s meeting with top aides of sitting Republicans to teach them what to say — or not to say — on the trail, especially when their boss is running against a woman.

“Speaker John Boehner is serious, too. His own top aides met recently with Republican staff to discuss how lawmakers should talk to female constituents. ‘Let me put it this way, some of these guys have a lot to learn,’ said a Republican staffer who attended the session in Boehner’s office.”

Let the learning begin. 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.