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How 60 Minutes Wasted Its Interview With Obama

The hour-long conversation was a typical example of a broadcast journalist failing to hold a powerful politician accountable


In an interview posted by 60 Minutes on Sunday, President Obama spends an hour answering questions posed by Steve Kroft, a 23-year veteran of the CBS television program who has won numerous broadcast journalism awards and enjoys unusual access to the president: earlier this year, he conducted the only interview with Obama on the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and back in 2008 he scored the first post-election interview with Barack and Michelle Obama.

Were I an adviser to President Obama, I'd urge him to give his next exclusive to Kroft too, for there is a superficial toughness to his interviews. "There are people in your own party who think that you were outmaneuvered. That you were stared down by John Boehner and Grover Norquist and capitulated," Kroft says at one point. Later he notes that "You say that you rallied the country, but these poll numbers show otherwise. They show that 75 percent thinks the country's on the wrong track." As a political operative, these are exactly the sorts of questions I'd want the struggling politician for whom I worked to get, because it appears that he has volunteered to sit down with a tough interviewer, but actually he is being given an opportunity to offer free-ranging explanations for something that no one can deny: lots of people in America are unhappy with him.

As a journalist at a non-broadcast outlet, I am frustrated by interviews like this one. Few journalists (and zero non-journalist citizens) are afforded an opportunity to spend an hour asking anything of the president, and fewer still who enjoy a mass audience as big as 60 Minutes, which bills its broadcasts as "hard-hitting." It is therefore disheartening each time the opportunity is squandered with broad, superficial, softball questions:

KROFT: You definitely have some impressive accomplishments.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you, Steve.

KROFT: No, you do. And more than a lot of presidents who manage to get reelected. My question is, is it enough? Why do you think you deserve to be reelected?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think under some extraordinary circumstances, we not only saved the country from a potential disaster -- not only did we manage our national security at a time where there were severe threats and two wars going on, in a way that has made America stronger and more respected and put us in a better strategic position around the world and almost decimated our number one enemy, which is al Qaeda -- but what I've also been able to do is to, in very practical ways, put in place a series of steps that will allow middle-class families and those trying to get in the middle class to take back some of what they've lost over the last couple of years. Now, we're not there yet, but what I can say unequivocally is that everything I've done, every single day, and everything I will do as long as I'm in this office is designed to make sure that every kid in America has the same opportunities that I had.

Given a fleeting hour with a president who is avowedly seeking re-election, how can a journalist possibly justify that exchange? Of course he's going to say yes, he deserves to be reelected, and then repeat his familiar messaging. In the course of the next year, as President Obama stumps all over the nation and otherwise campaigns for re-election, there is zero chance that the American public will be deprived of his argument for why he deserves another term.

It would be forgivable if that question were surrounded by better ones. But much of the interview is flawed in similar ways.

Another example:

KROFT: One of the things that surprised me the most about this poll is that 42%, when asked who your policies favor the most, 42% said Wall Street. Only 35% said average Americans. My suspicion is some of that may have to do with the fact that there's not been any prosecutions, criminal prosecutions, of people on Wall Street. And that the civil charges that have been brought have often resulted in what many people think have been slap on the wrists, fines. "Cost of doing business," I think you called it in the Kansas speech. Are you disappointed by that?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think you're absolutely right in your interpretation...

This is embarrassing. Why is Kroft volunteering an oversimplified explanation for American anger at Wall Street? Why does he pose the question as though Obama's feelings (whether he is disappointed or not) is relevant? More importantly, why does he fail to challenge the president with specific questions grounded in facts and policy realities rather than public perception?

Here's a journalist (ostensibly) working on behalf of a polity that has seen populist movements in the streets on the left and right, largely because they believe that there is an unseemly relationship between the federal government and Wall Street. Kroft could've asked whether Obama thought it was problematic for Peter Orszag to take a job at Citigroup; he could've asked whether it's true that Joe Biden called Jon Corzine at the height of the financial crisis to ask what the Obama Administration should do upon taking office; he could've asked about recent revelations that the Fed secretly funneled trillions to banks and failed to tell Congress about it. When did Obama know? Should anything be done about it? Kroft could've pressed Obama about why he hasn't pushed to end the "too big to fail" status quo that could conceivably lead to another Wall Street bailout. Any decent financial journalist could come up with dozens of other questions.

An interviewer determined to challenge a sitting president, as every interviewer of every president should do, could've asked what Obama thinks about the fact that his drone strikes in Pakistan are destabilizing a nuclear power and killing innocent children; or whether Solyndra got special treatment because of its insider connections; or what he thinks about the Fast and Furious scandal and what Eric Holder knew about it. Kroft could've challenged Obama to explain why he decided to proceed with military action in Libya even though it violated the War Powers Resolution, or asked him about the controversy surrounding federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, or echoed the concerns that progressives have with his immigration policies.

But nope. Kroft asked none of those questions; nor did he press Obama about his views on indefinitely detaining American citizens; nor did he ask about the killing without due process of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American; nor did he ask about the controversy surrounding whether the morning-after pill should be available over-the-counter for people of all ages or not; nor did he ask about the private security contractors that America will pay to stay in Iraq after we leave; nor about the state secrets privilege; nor about aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers; nor about many other issues of concern to liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, all of whom have earnest complaints.

Instead we got hard hitting exchanges like this one:

KROFT: I'm sure your poll numbers will probably automatically go up as soon as there is a Republican candidate in the race. I mean, that's normal. I mean, you're being judged now on your performance.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, no, no. I'm being judged against the ideal. And, you know, [Vice President] Joe Biden has a good expression. He says, "Don't judge me against the Almighty, judge me against the alternative."

Other gems:

  • "Have you given up on the Republicans? Have you stopped reaching out to them? Are you just out there now trying to get your message across?"
  • "What do you make of this surge by former Speaker Gingrich?"
  • "Tell me, what do you consider your major accomplishments?"
What this interview represents -- like so many broadcast news interviews with sitting politicians and high level bureaucrats -- is the charade of asking tough questions to hold the president accountable. And the utter failure to ask any actually tough questions, to unearth any new facts of significance, to force any sort of reckoning before the television cameras on a matter of importance. If I were advising Obama, I'd make sure that Kroft got the next exclusive interview too.  
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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