The 10-minute pre-Super Bowl interview between FOX News' Bill O'Reilly and President Barack Obama on Sunday evening, Feb. 2, 2014 during a special edition of The O'Reilly Factor was even more bruising than the Denver Bronco's 43 to 8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks during the evening's main event. The conservative Fox News' live interview taped at the White House focused on issues most Americans and news media have long forgotten, but remain much alive on the Fox News network, including the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya and the IRS scandal that as the President pointed have been the basis of numerous Congressional hearings with no wrong doing found. Never mind the disastrous rollout of the health care law and in general the Affordable Care Act, which perennially remains opposed by Republicans.
President Obama chose a defensive tactic throughout the very confrontational interview that was both short, but packed a big punch. Most of the time O'Reilly and the President argued so much over each other that neither of them could get a out a full sentence, and resembled more a police interrogation rather than what should have been a friendly pre-football game interview. Much of the interview focuses on the divide on ideological issues that are important to conservatives and Fox News viewers. Obama told O'Reilly that there is only one reason those remain hot topics, stating; "These kinds of things keep on surfacing in part because you and your TV station will promote them."
The Fox News host went right to the point starting on the health care law rollout issue. O'Reilly was confrontational from the start in his questions on the errors and glitches in the online health insurance marketplace, HealthCare.gov and the President's false promise that Americans would be able to keep their health insurance and then millions started being dropped from the providers. It took nearly two months for the President to rectify both problems.
Twice the President was forced to answer an almost identical question on anticipating the technical errors to the Marketplace; Obama responded the second time "I don't think anybody anticipated the degree of problems that you had on HealthCare.gov. The good news is that right away, we decided how are we going to fix it, it got fixed within a month and a half." Still having the last word O'Reilly pointed out that with the marketplace website "only 8 percent of them feel that it's working well."
O'Reilly was still pressing a conservative demand to fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, because she was in charge of the disastrous rollout and the health insurance marketplace website riddled with errors. President Obama tried to focus on the positives, while O'Reilly was interested only in negatives, and no matter how much Obama wanted to veer the conversation, O'Reilly remained stuck on firing Sebelius; "I'm sure that the intent is noble, but I'm a taxpayer… And I'm paying Kathleen Sebelius' salary and she screwed up." With Obama finally repeatedly responding; "I promise you that we hold everybody up and down the line accountable…. we're in midstream, we want to make sure that our main focus is how do we make this thing work so that people are able to sign up?"
The next negative O'Reilly focused on was Americans losing their insurance despite the President's promise, with the Fox host asking; "Was it the biggest mistake of your presidency to tell the nation over and over, if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance? The President called out the Fox host for zeroing in just on his faults and "mistakes"; "Bill, you've got a long list of my mistakes." This time however, Obama relented early and admitted to his error; "this is one that I regret and I've said I regretted, in part because we put in a grandfather clause in the original law saying that, in fact, you were supposed to be able to keep it." But the President would not call it his "biggest mistake" with O'Reilly telling Obama; "You gave your enemies... a lot of fodder for it. In the most memorable line of the interview and distinct football reference Obama declared; "I try to focus not on the fumbles, but on the next play."
The terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was the next major topic, with O'Reilly blaming Obama for not labeling the attack terrorism right away. The Fox News host kept hammering the President about why Secretary Leon Panetta at first called it a terror act, but then both Obama and Susan Rice did not call it such. After a back and forth where both O'Reilly and Obama were speaking over themselves, with neither of them getting to finish a sentence. Obama expressed that it was "an act of terror, which is how I characterized it the day after it happened. So the... so the question ends up being who, in fact, was attacking us?"
Throughout the exchange with O'Reilly attacking and Obama defending, at a point the President was fed up with O'Reilly's interruptions, he said; "I'm trying to explain it to, if you want to listen." Continuing, Obama made an admission; "In the aftermath, what became clear was that the security was lax, that not all the precautions and... that needed to be taken were taken and both myself and Secretary Clinton and others indicated as much." The President finally answered why according to the administration a terror act was not clear; "You have a mix of folks who are just troublemakers. You have folks who have an ideological agenda… You have some who are affiliated with terrorist organizations. You have some that are not. But the main thing that all of us have to take away from this is our diplomats are serving in some very dangerous places."
Then after getting Obama to fess up to some admissions, O'Reilly hit him that the President did not admit at the time that it was a terror, because there was concern about the impact on the 2012 Presidential campaign. O'Reilly told Obama; "That's what they believe." With the President squaring placing the blame for that notion on Fox News; "and they believe it because folks like you are telling them that." After another short back and forth Obama tried to set O'Reilly straight that there was no cover-up; "We revealed to the American people exactly what we understood at the time. The notion that we would hide the ball for political purposes when, a week later, we all said, in fact, there was a terrorist attack taking place the day after, I said it was an act of terror, that wouldn't be a very good cover-up..."
Then the Fox New host moved on to the IRS scandal as the next topic where O'Reilly and the President would argue over each other back and forth. O'Reilly tried to create a conspiracy about former IRS chief Douglas Shulman's many visits to the White House, which Obama claimed was primarily for the health care law launch. After much insistence from O'Reilly the President was able to answer one complete sentence, where the President again tried to turn the tables on Fox News; "that's not what happened. They... folks have, again, had multiple hearings on this. I mean these kinds of things keep on surfacing, in part because you and your TV station will promote them."
Obama tried to explain the IRS was not targeting the Tea Party and conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, but did not know how apply that one status for non-profits; "you've got a 501(c-4) law that people think is focusing. No, that the folks did not know how to implement..." In the end the President was forced to admit after some leading questions on corruption from O'Reilly; "There were some boneheaded decisions. Not even a smidgen of corruption."
In the last policy element of the interview O'Reilly read a letter from a woman in Fresno, California, relating to the President's comment from Oct. 30, 2008 before winning the election, with the question; "Mr. President, why do you feel it's necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity and success?"
President Obama denied that, but through interruptions, was able to bring out his main message about his economic initiative; "I think that what we have to do is make sure that here in America, if you work hard, you can get ahead. Bill, you and I benefitted from this incredible country of ours, in part, because there were good jobs out there that paid a good wage, because you had public schools that functioned well, that we could get scholarships if we didn't come from a wealthy family, in order to go to college…. That, you know, if you worked hard, not only did you have a good job, but you also had decent benefits, decent health care... and for a lot of folks, we don't have that. We've got to make sure that we're doing everything we can to expand the middle class…. and work hard and people who are working hard can get into the middle class."
O'Rielly reserved his one nice comment for the President until the end of the interview, recognizing; "I know you think maybe we haven't been fair, but I think your heart is in the right place." The only game day appropriate question came in the last few seconds when O'Reilly asked Obama to predict the Super Bowl score and winner. The President showed Fox viewers he is even non-committal about that, saying; "I can't make a prediction. I don't know. These guys are too evenly matched. I think it is going to be 24-21, but I don't know who's going to be…24 and I don't know who's going to be 21.
This was President Obama's second interview in a week on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 30 and 31 CNN aired an interview between Jack Tapper and the President. The amicable interview did not bring a lot attention from the media because of the lack of conflict and focus on Obama friendly talking points, Presidential agenda, economic opportunity, decriminalization of Marijuana, XL Keystone Pipeline, the Olympics, the 2016 campaign, the Super Bowl, the President's daughters. The only new development in the interview revealed that Obama would be open to immigration reform that provides legal status, but not citizenship for illegal immigrants. President Obama pre-Super Bowl interview is annual tradition awarded to the network airing the big game, O'Reilly interviewed Obama last in 2011 as part of the same tradition.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.