'We're making American history!" cried the announcer on ABC's The View. And they were.
Special guest Thursday on the late-morning talk show: President Obama, the first sitting president to make a personal appearance on a daytime TV talker. The audience was pumped, the political tension was palpable, and behind it all boiled the vitriolic political year of 2010.
Lead host Barbara Walters showed up, still convalescing from recent heart surgery. She opened with: "[Y]ou've gone through a little bit of a beating the last month. Do you really think that being on a show with a bunch of women, five women who never shut up, is going to be calming?"
From his first answer ("Look, I was trying to find a show that Michelle actually watched . . . "), Obama sought to project openness, cool, and faith in the cohering power of a shared Americanness.
But thanks to the world we live in, with new media and new messages instant by instant, the political landscape is changing fast - for politicians and voters alike, and all are scrambling to keep up.
That's why Obama went on the show that now dubs itself "Red, White, and View." What viewers saw was the TV president, the Internet and YouTube president, moving fast not to be left behind.
Obama said it himself: "These things change very quickly."
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, lays out in an e-mail how quickly: "His job performance [rating] dropped 20 points from Jan. '09-Jan. '10, and nothing he has done . . . ha[s] moved the performance meter one way or the other very much. He remains about 47-48 percent positive, with virtually no change this year at all."
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says there's no question: Instant, all-pervasive media have contributed to the volatility of the electorate. "Because technology changes so fast," he says, "politicians have to change fast to keep up, and it means the audience changes rapidly, too."
But news events great and small - oil slick, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Shirley Sherrod, Afghanistan, WikiLeaks, jobs, orders for durable goods, polls and more polls - tear at that shared image. And the electorate shifts shape: Many of those who voted for Obama now, as Thompson puts it, "don't seem to be particularly fond of the message."
Tradition old and new. A presidential-level pol on pop TV is not new. Obama's View visit Thursday was just the latest in a tradition at least 42 years old.
Richard M. Nixon appeared on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in September 1968, to say, famously, "Sock it to me?" Tenor-sax man Bill Clinton played "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. Candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore hit all the talks in 2000, as did candidates Obama and John McCain in 2008.
All these were but candidates looking to get elected. The telling difference yesterday was that Obama, a sitting president, was campaigning to keep Congress for his party, and thus protect his agenda. He's the first president to resort to pop TV in a bid to retain power at midterm.
And so, there he was, fielding questions from hosts Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck on the economy, Afghanistan, the Shirley Sherrod affair, race, and - the playlist on the presidential iPod. (He listed Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, and Maria Callas, but confessed he had no Justin Bieber.) No bombshells. OK, he did admit he didn't know who Snooki is. He projected such calm that Behar blurted, "Are you on Zoloft?"
Taking in "The View." The View was a fascinating choice, especially now, as the nation careers toward the November elections, with control of the Congress at stake. The Nielsen people say 70 percent of The View's 3.8 million daily viewers are women, with a median age of 59. That's a heavy-voting bunch, rich in those much-polled, much-dissected swing voters.
On the air since 1997, The View takes women, and their interest in current events, seriously. It has long featured its "Hot Topics" segment, in which hosts debate issues of the day. During the testy 2008 election year, when hosts started to shout at one another, audience numbers spiked to near four million.
And they've stayed there, steadily around 3.8 million, beating Meet the Press (3.7 million) and The O'Reilly Factor (2.7 million). The View actually draws a million more viewers than it did in 2000. Viewers apparently like to watch celebrity women fight about issues. Who knew? The View knew.
The media president. Obama broke ground in 2009, the first sitting president to go on a late-night show, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, one-liners at the ready ("I do think in Washington it's a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell"). He also has been on Late Show With David Letterman, and repeatedly on 60 Minutes. Madonna writes, "Obama has had more public events - speeches, pressers, town halls, etc. - than any president in the first 19 months of a term in American history. He may have had more than any president during their full term."
Baltimore Sun writer David Zurawik quips on his website that "when the going gets tough, President Obama gets air time."
Unity and division. The subtext to many of the questions Thursday was, as Walters put it, the "beating" the White House has taken, and the fragmenting forces of media and politics. As Hasselbeck told Obama, "We are a very divided States of America."
Obama acknowledged the fragmentation. He glanced at the 24/7 news cycle, which, in the case of Sherrod, he said, had "generated a phony controversy." He acknowledged that racial tensions persisted but insisted that, generation by generation, they were moderating, and that "we're making great progress."
And he repeatedly declared his faith that "We share the same hopes, we share the same dreams, we share the same aspiration. . . . Everybody here is connected in some way. . . . I think most Americans feel that way."
In the face of the splintering power of politics-stoked media and media-driven politics, Obama had come to assert the image of a unified government and people.
Will it work? Madonna writes that stints on shows such as The View "are not likely to change the fundamentals of his situation. . . . I think the public just does not pay attention anymore - a classic case of overexposure going on here." Thompson worries that, as voters and politicians learn the skills of skepticism necessary in the information world vintage 2010, "skepticism grows so great that we cease to have common ground."
Common ground, the sense of anything shared, was really what was at stake yesterday on The View. The next three months will test which country emerges: Obama's United States or Hasselbeck's "divided states."