The toughest interview President Obama had in the run-up to the 2012 election was with snarky talk-show host John Stewart, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
In an on-stage interview at George Washington University today, the top administration communications official pointed to the president's sit-down with The Daily Show as the "most substantive, challenging" grilling Obama had prior to the election. Via RealClearPolitics:
JAY CARNEY: I remember we had some discussion during 2012 about well, is it appropriate for the president, the sitting president and candidate, to give interviews with Jon Stewart and others. And the answer was yes, again because the young voters we were trying to reach are more likely to watch The Daily Show than some other news shows. But also, I think if you look back at 2012 and the series of interviews the sitting president of the United States gave, probably the toughest interview he had was with Jon Stewart. Probably the most substantive, challenging interview Barack Obama had in the election year was with the anchor of The Daily Show.
That's a feather in Stewart's cap, and a reflection of his formidable skills as an interviewer (for a more recent example, witness the interview he conducted with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius shortly after the launch of Obamacare's exchanges). Stewart really is extremely good at drawing out his subjects, at getting to the point, and at focusing more on substance than on soundbite-driven news-cycle controversies.
But if you think Carney's remark is true, it's also something of an indictment of the mainstream journalists who are supposed to be holding the president accountable. If the president isn't squirming a bit under questioning, and his staff don't consider the interviews he sits for to be tough or challenging, then that's a problem.
Of course, that's hard to do without access. And this White House has not exactly made it easy for journalists to question the president, especially those with national audiences who might be most eager to press him on tough subjects.
During much of the 2012 campaign, the White House minimized its contact with national press, favoring local media outlets that were easier to bargain with. By August of that year, the president had been interviewed just eight times by national media, and 58 times by local news. Local news reporters were given ground rules that most national press would have been unlikely to accept: The White House chose the topic of the interview in advance, and then limited the length of the interviews to just 10 minutes, meaning that even if a reporter wanted to deviate from the predetermined topic, there was little time to discuss anything else.
National media ought to be willing to subject this president (or any other, from any party) to tough, rigorous interviews. But the White House and its communications team ought to be confident enough to subject the president to fair but critical interviews about his statements and policies. That they are not probably tells you as much or more than many of the softball interviews he ended up giving.