On Tuesday night President Obama sat down with Jay Leno on NBC’s The Tonight Show and there were several interesting exchanges. The interview spanned three segments of the hour-long show and ranged from foreign policy to economics to 2012, moving from serious to funny and back again.
Right off the top Leno asked the president about criticisms of his approach to foreign policy – despite many arguable successes in recent months – based on a phrase used by one of his advisers in an interview with the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. While discussing the president’s approach to the conflict in Libya, the adviser described the United States to Lizza as “leading from behind.”
The phrase immediately sparked a lot of conversation – especially in conservative circles – even causing Lizza to follow up with a blog post about the true meaning of the phrase, citing this Nelson Mandela quote as one source of the concepts popularity:
It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.
Tonight Obama responded to the criticism – and denied the use of the phrase:
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the truth was, we - this was a phrase that the media picked up on. But it's not one that I ever used. We lead from the front. We introduced the resolution in the United Nations that allowed us to protect civilians in Libya when Gaddafi was threatening to slaughter them. It was our extraordinary men and women in uniform, our pilots who took out their air defense systems, set up a no-fly zone. It was our folks in NATO who were helping to coordinate the NATO operation there. And the difference here is we were able to organize the international community. We were able to get the U.N. mandate for the operation. We were able to get Arab countries involved. And so there was never this sense that somehow we were unilaterally making a decision to take out somebody. Rather, it was the world community. And that's part of the reason why this whole thing only cost us a billion dollars - as opposed to a trillion dollars. Not a single U.S. troop was on the ground. Not a single U.S. troop was killed or injured, and that, I think, is a recipe for success in the future.
On a lighter note, Leno asked President Obama about rumors that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden might switch jobs for the 2012 elections:
JAY LENO: Now, let me ask you something. And this is a fun story. This is stuff I love, this rumor that Joe Biden and Hilary might swap, and she might run for Vice President and he might - is there any -
THE PRESIDENT: You know, Joe Biden is not only a great Vice President, but he has been a great advisor and a great friend to me. So I think that they are doing great where they are, and both of them are racking up a lot of miles. Joe tends to go more to Pittsburgh. Hilary is going to Karachi. But they've both got important work to do. They are doing great.
On Friday, President Obama announced that the U.S. would remove all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Citing the thousands of service members that we have lost in the war there, and the billions of dollars spent over the course of 9 years, Leno asked the president what we had accomplished:
THE PRESIDENT: I think Americans can rightly be proud that we have given Iraqis an opportunity to determine their own destiny, but I also think that policymakers and future Presidents need to understand what it is that we are getting ourselves into when we make some of these decisions. And there might have been other ways for us to accomplish those same goals. But the main thing right now is to celebrate the extraordinary work that our men and women did. Having them home for the holidays for good is going to be a big deal.
Leno also asked the president about the Occupy Wall Street movement – an outpost of which has set up shop just a few blocks from the White House in Washington D.C. The president seemed to attribute much of the frustration to a pervasive feeling that “the deck is stacked against” average Americans:
THE PRESIDENT: Look, people are frustrated, and that frustration has expressed itself in a lot of different ways. It expressed itself in the Tea Party. It's expressing itself in Occupy Wall Street. I do think that what this - what this signals is that people in leadership, whether it's corporate leadership, leaders in the banks, leaders in Washington, everybody needs to understand that the American people feel like nobody is looking out for them right now. And, traditionally, what held this country together was this notion that if you work hard, if you are playing by the rules, if you are responsible, if you are looking out for your family, you are showing up to work every day and doing a good job, you've got a chance to get ahead. You've got a chance to succeed. And, right now, it feels to people like the deck is stacked against them, and the folks in power don't seem to be paying attention to that.
So if everybody is tuned in to that message and we are working every single day to figure out how do we give people a fair shake and how do we make sure that everybody is doing their fair share, then people won't be occupying the streets because they will have a job and they will feel like they are able to get ahead. But, right now, they are frustrated. And part of my job over the next year is to make sure that if they are not seeing it out of Congress at a minimum, they are seeing it out of their President, somebody who is going to be fighting for them.
On his campaign eating habits, President Obama said that his wife doesn’t mind his occasional trips for hamburgers and fried chicken as long as it’s in moderation. And after reaffirming once-and-for-all that he has “definitively” quit smoking, the president said he’s dealing with the pressure by exercising at the White House every morning with his wife. On family issues, President Obama said that his older daughter Malia just got a cell phone, but she’s not allowed to use it during the week – “just like they are not allowed to watch TV during the week.”
As a big basketball fan, Leno couldn’t resist asking the president about the NBA lockout, and the president called the situation “heartbreaking:”
JAY LENO: Well, I know you are a huge basketball fan. This lockout, this is really depressing.
THE PRESIDENT: It's heartbreaking.
JAY LENO: What needs to be done here? Who is wrong?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, if you look at the NFL, they were able to settle theirs.
JAY LENO: Yeah.
THE PRESIDENT: And I think they understood. Players were making millions of dollars. Owners, some of us are worth billions of dollars. We should be able to figure out how to split a nine-billion-dollar pot so that our fans, who are allowing us to make all of this money, can actually have a good season. And I think the owners and the basketball players need to think the same way.