Obama Enters Lions' (Or Fox's) Den With O'Reilly Interview

Screenshot of President Obama and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly interview, Feb. 6, 2011. i i

Screenshot of President Obama and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly interview, Feb. 6, 2011. screenshot/Fox News Channel hide caption

itoggle caption screenshot/Fox News Channel
Screenshot of President Obama and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly interview, Feb. 6, 2011.

Screenshot of President Obama and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly interview, Feb. 6, 2011.

screenshot/Fox News Channel

President Obama's White House interview with Bill O'Reilly was a Super Bowl Sunday match-up that, in its way, was as entertaining as the National Football League championship game.

Obama engaged O'Reilly on the Fox News Channel host's terms, keeping a broad smile as O'Reilly peppered him with questions and interrupted repeatedly, as is O'Reilly's customary style.

It was Obama transforming a stately White House room into the lion's den (or Fox den) then entering it.

While no news was made, the interview gave Obama a chance to do a few things.

First, just by appearing on Fox News, a media operation that has been one of his harshest critics, Obama signaled he was reaching out, once again extending the hand of bipartisanship.

While it might not do anything to win over to his side hardcore conservatives, it was the kind of move that self-described independents, some of whom watch Fox News, would appreciate.

Appearing relaxed (no tie) and affable with O'Reilly, Obama meant to counter some of the perceptions about him being arrogant and elitist.

At one point, O'Reilly asked him how it felt to be hated by so many people.

OBAMA: You know, the truth is, that the people — and I'm sure previous presidents would say the same thing, whether it was Bush or Clinton or Reagan or anybody. The people who dislike you don't know you.

O'REILLY: They hate you.

OBAMA: Even — the folks who hate you, they don't know you.

O'REILLY: That's true.

OBAMA: What they hate is whatever funhouse mirror image of you that's out there. And they don't know you. And so, you don't take it personally.

O'REILLY: No. You don't ever?

OBAMA: No. Because you know that if you just...

O'REILLY: Doesn't it annoy you sometimes?

OBAMA: You know, look, I think that by the time you get here, you have to have had a pretty thick skin. If you didn't, then you probably wouldn't have gotten here.

At another point, in one of his best moments of the interview, Obama used humor to point out how some of his conservative critics reflexively and ideologically see anything he does as wrong.

O'REILLY: Here's what the Wall Street Journal said, I want you to react to this. Mr. Obama is a determined man of the left whose goal is to redistribute much larger levels of income across society. He may give tactical ground when he has to, as he did on taxes to avoid a middle class tax increase, but he will resist to his last day any major changes to Obamacare and the other load-bearing walls of the entitlement state.

This is The Wall Street Journal you know painting you as pretty left-wing guy. Are you going to go along?

OBAMA: Well, the Wall Street Journal probably would paint you as a left-wing guy. I mean, if you're talking about the Wall Street Journal editorial page...

O'REILLY: I've got to tell you, that's what this is.

OBAMA: You know, that's like quoting the New York Times editorial...

O'Reilly interrupted the president before Obama could make his point but it seemed like it was going to be that reflexive criticism happens on both ends of the ideological continuum.

To further his appeal to the all-important independents, Obama took the opportunity to underscore that while he's been labeled by conservative critics an ultra-liberal, he's really been more of a pragmatist.

O'REILLY: But the pundits now say you're moving to the center to raise your approval, is that true, are you moving to the center?

OBAMA: No.

O'REILLY: No? Because we were set up over there, and then they moved you a little to the center.

OBAMA: (Laughs) Here's what I think is true. Over the first two years of my presidency, we had a complete disaster. Right? We had a complete crisis. The financial markets were breaking down. We were slipping into a Great Depression. And we had to take a bunch of extraordinary steps in order to make sure that the economy was growing again, which it is now, growing. Making sure that the private sector was creating jobs again. It's now doing that.

And now our focus is not on refighting the battle of the last two years...

O'REILLY: So you're not moving to the center?

OBAMA: I haven't — I didn't move to...

O'REILLY: You haven't moved anywhere? You're the same guy?

OBAMA: I'm the same guy. My practical focus, my common-sense focus right now is how to we out-innovate, out-educate, out-building, out-compete the rest of the world? How do we create jobs here in the United States of America? How do we make sure that businesses are thriving? But how do we also — making sure that ordinary Americans can live out the American dream?

Secondly, Obama reiterated his administration's view that it was up to the Egyptians to sort out their leadership challenges.

That message got a little muddled over the weekend when Obama's special envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, said President Hosni Mubarak should stay to oversee the transition, making it appear that the Obama Administration was siding with Mubarak.

Third, when O'Reilly mentioned the health care law battle, Obama countered the criticism that the new law is socialistic in a way we can expect to hear a lot more about.

He sought to turn the tables, saying that the problem is the free loaders, or as economists would say, the free riders, who want other people to pick up the costs of their health care when they get sick or become injured.

OBAMA: ... And what I hear you saying, Bill, for example, is that the notion that us saying to people that don't have health insurance, don't make me pay for your health insurance, if you get sick, you have a responsibility to make sure that you have got coverage. There's nothing socialist about that, that's saying to Americans, we're going each of us be responsible for our own health care. And that's something that I think that the majority of Americans...

O'Reilly interrupted him again but it seems like the logical conclusion of where the president was going was that he was going to say Americans can agree that wanting to end the free rider problem wasn't socialism.

An interesting moment came when Obama was asked about the "worst" part of being president.

His predecessor, President George W. Bush, would often answer similar questions with a response drawn from emotions, saying it was meeting with surviving family members of dead Americans who died in action as part of the U.S. military or in tragedies.

Obama's answer was that the worst thing was talking about the distance the job creates between on him and other people.

OBAMA: The biggest problem for me is being in the bubble. It's very hard to escape. You know, you can't go to the corner...

O'REILLY: Everybody watching every move you make.

OBAMA: Every move you make. And you — over time, you know, what happens is you feel like — that you're not able to just have a spontaneous conversation with folks.

O'REILLY: Yes.

OBAMA: And that's a loss. That's a big loss.

It's not that either Bush's or Obama's answer is more or less right. But the difference was interesting.

It's hard to imagine that trying to comfort grief-stricken families is a part of job Obama looks forward to any more than Bush did.

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