Going toe-to-toe with Fox News’ conservative heavy hitter, President Barack Obama took his chances with 64-year-old favorite Bill O’Reilly. While not as acerbic as O’Reilly’s media idol Rush Limbaugh, granting a 10-minute interview with Obama before the Super Bowl was bound to make headlines. Raising the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi, Libya calamity, O’Reilly pressed Obama on why his administration wasn’t forthcoming about the violent incident that cost the lives of 52-year-old Libyan Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. “When someone is attacking our compound, that is an act of terror and that’s how I characterized it the next day,” Obama told O’Reilly. Yet the record clearly shows former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice went on Sunday morning talk shows characterizing the attack as a spontaneous riot due to a YouTube video disparaging Islam.
Showing that O’Reilly didn’t take his opportunity seriously, he didn’t bring up Rice’s comments on Sunday morning talk shows. Rice’s predigested talking points cost her job as U.N. ambassador and prevented her from getting promoted to secretary of state. Getting an interview with Obama is a major coup for Fox News’ top-rated on-air talent. Obama rambled a bit trying to explain what happened in Benghazi, something that could dog former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should she run for president in 2016. “In the aftermath, what became clear was the security was laxed, that not all precautions that need to be taken were taken,” explained Obama. “And both myself and Secretary Clinton indicated as much,” maybe causing problems for Hillary down the road. All Barack had to say was that Rice’s talking points weren’t adequate and Hillary wasn’t entirely responsible for Benghazi’s lax security.
Right wing circles have beat Benghazi into the ground, promoting the view that both Obama and Clinton were responsible for the lack of security. O’Reilly never blamed former President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney for the lax national security that allowed Sept. 11. Yet, 5,000 miles from Washington, D.C. in a terrorist-infested atmosphere after Gadaffi’s fall from Tripoli Aug. 21, 2011, O’Reilly wants to hold Obama and Clinton’s feet to the fire. O’Reilly put Obama on the defensive explaining what went wrong. “We revealed to the American people exactly what was understood at the time,” said Obama, essentially admitting that Rice misspoke when she described the attack as “spontaneous rioting.“ Speaking to O’Reilly, White House strategists had to know that he would make Obama look bad, especially to GOP and independent voters.
Challenging Obama on the IRS scandal, where conservative IRS 527 tax-exempt political groups were scrutinized more than liberal groups, Obama denied any White House shenanigans. Admitting to “some bonehead decisions” at the IRS, the president offered no insights into how the scandal took place. When O’Reilly pivoted to Obamacare, the president got more testy about the botched Oct. 1, 2013 opening of Heatthcare.gov, the government’s website for signing folks up. “I don’t think I anticipated or anybody anticipated the degree of problems with Healthcare.gov,” said Obama, excusing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Asked by O’Reilly whether or not his promise to Americans that they could keep their old insurance plans was the worst mistake of his presidency, Obama made fun about other GOP complaints.
O’Reilly had many chances to really press Obama on the GOP’s pet issues but chose instead to keep the interview copasetic. “My main priority is making sure it delivers for the American people,” said Obama, referring to cutting Sebelius some slack now that Healthcare.gov seems to be working. Blaming O’Reilly for keeping the president’s mistakes in the news, Obama showed he doesn’t really get the 24/7 cable news business. “These kind of things keep on surfacing in part because you and your TV station will promote them,” said Obama, acknowledging that Fox News makes a living off the president’s mistakes. Whatever explanations the president gave, facing O’Reilly before the Super Bowl showed an undaunted side when facing his most abrasive critics. O’Reilly did what his boss Fox New President Roger Ailes expects, namely, get the ratings.
O’Reilly’s pre-Super Bowl interview with Obama showed that today’s news—whether on cable or network—is all about entertainment. What’s more entertaining than watching Obama go up against his GOP critics? Whether admitted to or not, O’Reilly handled Barack with kid gloves, hoping, at some future point, to get a second chance. When you consider all that’s happening, O’Reilly’s Obama interview was more interesting than the lopsided Super Bowl. “I promise you that we hold everybody up and down the line accountable,” Obama told O’Reilly, regarding ongoing mistakes that inevitably occur in every administration. Getting and keeping the ratings has made O’Reilly the top rated cable news show with more than 3.1 millions viewers. When you consider the audience Obama reached before the Super Bowl with O’Reilly, he probably scored some points too.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.