There was an unmistakable moment when Steve Kroft took control of his interview with President Obama. And the president never got it back.
It was pretty obvious that Obama did not have a good outing on “60 Minutes.” And perhaps there is a larger lesson about the media and the 44th president, coming as even the Democratic candidates to succeed him are trying to distance themselves from what would otherwise be viewed as a third Obama term.
Kroft has been Obama’s go-to guy since he was a candidate, and some of those interviews have been a bit on the soft side. I have great respect for Kroft as an aggressive journalist, and here he was at his finest.
The veteran CBS correspondent was pressing Obama about the fiasco in Syria in the wake of Russia’s military intervention. He turned to the administration's $500-million program to train and equip 5,000 of the so-called moderate Syrian rebels—which, according to a top commander, did so for only 50. With most of them now dead or having deserted, Obama has just ended the effort.
Obama replied that he had been “skeptical” of the program. Why, then, Kroft asked, did he go through with it?
The president said he had to “try different things.”
“I know you don’t want to talk about this,” Kroft said, drawing a presidential denial.
It was a “serious miscalculation,” Kroft said. A moment later, he interrupted Obama: “It’s an embarrassment.”
That was the moment, prompting this presidential admission: “Look, there’s no doubt that it did not work.” And after a long answer, Kroft complained: “I feel like I’m being filibustered, Mr. President.”
At another point, when Obama argued that Vladimir Putin was bombing in Syria out of weakness, Kroft shot back: “He’s challenging your leadership.”
And in a second segment, Kroft got Obama to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton had made a mistake using private email, even as the president deflected other questions and said he didn’t believe national security had been breached.
All this is quite a contrast to that all-smiles session that Kroft did with Obama and Clinton when she was stepping down as secretary of State and they sung each other’s praises.
Now obviously it’s easier to be tough on a president at the end of his seventh year because there aren’t many more exclusive interviews to be gotten. And it’s easier to push back on a president who’s not popular and is presiding over an unmitigated mess in the Middle East.
One reason we haven’t seen more of this, in my view, is that the president hasn’t exposed himself to many television interviews with journalists like Kroft. He mainly talks to liberal sympathizers and amusing characters. So Obama has sat down with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, with Chris Matthews, with Jon Stewart, with Vice, with YouTube cereal bather Glozell Green, with Zak Galifinakis, and with Marc Maron, who does his “WTF” podcast out of his garage.
That’s his privilege, and a sign of not having to run again.
The CBS sitdown comes at a time when the media and political debate has shifted to his successor. When Kroft asked about Donald Trump, Obama called him a “great publicity-seeker” who will not be the next president (Trump responded on Fox, calling the interview “terrible.”)
The president's lame-duck status will be evident at tonight’s Democratic debate, when Hillary and Bernie Sanders will be competing to show that they are not Obama—and in fact are to the left of Obama.
“Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders promise different approaches from Mr. Obama’s, as much in style as in substance,” the New York Times says. “Both have suggested they could get more accomplished, though Mrs. Clinton does so in more oblique terms.”
As we get into 2016, Obama may decide to use selected interviews to defend and define his legacy as it comes under frontal attack from Republican candidates, and more implicitly by Democratic candidates.
There’s also a media shift late in an administration from what an incumbent plans to do to what he has actually accomplished.
If Steve Kroft’s interview is any indication, the president may face some rougher questioning than he has in the past.