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Why Obama Is Good TV

Obama’s appearance on Thursday’s  “Tonight Show” had an 11.2 rating, according to Nielsen, which means 11.2 percent of Nielsen households were watching, making it among the top five Leno shows ever. The evening showcased exactly why all those viewers bother to tune in: the President does well on TV. As controlled as he is, he’s no control freak.

His trademark measured, polished command of the facts and arguments is – even when the cameras are rolling — sprinkled with the occasional comment that seems not just irreverent, but kind of naughty, even. (Remember “you’re likeable enough, Hillary”?).

This time it was an impolitic reference to the disabled, saying that his bowling score was “like the Special Olympics or something.” It should be no surprise that the moment did not turn into a p.r disaster for Obama – despite some morning-after attempts to find controversy in it.

“This gaffe comes as the president faces criticism about the AIG bonuses,” ABC’s Jake Tapper said, in what seemed like an attempt to show Obama faltering in the public’s eye.

TMZ went right for the jugular: “President Barack Obama made fun of the handicapped last night on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.’ He was making a joke about his bad bowling skills, but here’s the question: If George W. Bush had said the same thing, would people be lashing out more?”

(Attention TMZ: The less offensive word is "disabled.")

But the President moved quickly to apologize, calling Special Olympic chairman Tim Shriver from Air Force one. “He expressed his disappointment and he apologized, in a way that I think was very moving,” Shriver told Good Morning America.

Once again Obama’s gamble has paid off: He understands that in an age of non-stop multimedia scrutiny, letting himself be seen as a flawed, occasionally even insensitive human being will not just not hurt him, it will keep people watching and listening. 

Obama was unafraid to be the first sitting president to go on the "Tonight Show," even during an economic crisis (and predictably, the Republican tsk – tsks followed.) The results showed us what it’s like to be governed by someone who is not "tough" — just fearless.

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