Much has been made of this exchange in the Obama vs. O’Reilly interview, in which O’Reilly asked if the president thinks he’s been unfair. The answer was, of course, yes:
When Fox’s Bill O’Reilly asked Obama during their recent interview, “Do you think I’m being unfair to you?” Obama replied … yes.
“Absolutely,” Obama said. “Of course you are, Bill — but, I like you anyway.” …
The president noted that the interview consisted of leading questions about “health care not working,” Benghazi, and allegations of a “wholly corrupt” IRS — issues, Obama said, that are “defined by you guys in a certain way.”
A critic of Fox News in the past, Obama said “this is okay,” and “if you want to be president of the United States, then you know that you’re going to be subject to criticism.”
He added: “I think regardless of whether it’s fair or not … it has made Fox News very successful.”
And: “What you guys are gonna have to figure out is … what are you gonna do when I’m gone?”
All right, a couple things. If he’s so “unfair,” President Obama did not have to do the interview. I don’t think he is unfair. In fact, O’Reilly goes out of his way to emphasize his belief in the president’s good intentions, good heart, and areas where he agrees with the president (sometimes to an extent that might be annoying to, say, a conservative guest arguing with him who’s less inclined to grant the president good faith so often). He also asks questions and does commentary about things that are obviously newsworthy scandals, which is basically the president’s definition of “unfair.”
But here’s the point. Once the president has decided to do the interview with the “unfair” journalist, it is his job to make the best of that interview for his own messaging purposes. I’m going to set aside my own views on the minimum wage to talk about this from a strategic communications point of view.
In the two weeks leading up to the president’s interview with the highest-rated host on the highest-rated cable network in the country, that host had repeatedly professed support for a major part of the president’s economic agenda— raising the minimum wage. Support for the minimum wage is not something that’s necessarily popular with O’Reilly’s audience, which whether Obama likes it or not, make up a large segment of the country that needs convincing before he can accomplish large parts of his legislative agenda.
So, what the heck is he doing answering O’Reilly’s question with anything other than this?
“You know, Bill, there is one issue on which I think you’ve been totally fair, and that’s the minimum wage. Now, stick with me because this goes to your question. This is a perfect example of where the American people can come together to make change. If Bill O’Reilly and Barack Obama can agree on something, surely Congress can come together, too. As I’ve said before, Bill, I’m not interested in what’s right or left. I’m interested in what works, and I think you are, too. This is one area where we can work together to make sure the American people get a fair shake. What’s fairer than that? We don’t have to agree on every question you ask or every segment you do on your show, and we never will, but on this issue, we can bring help to those who need it and a brighter day to the folks who are out there working hard.”
Instead, he declared O’Reilly “unfair” in a peevish and tired answer that, if he believes it’s true, is an indictment of his own decisions and those of the staff booking this interview. He had an opportunity to communicate with a giant swath of the country that does not agree with him, with a huge assist from a host who does, on a legislative goal he could conceivably accomplish. He knew O’Reilly agreed with him on this issue and mentioned it in passing during a more contentious part of the interview, but this was an obvious chance to give the pitch and close the deal. The folks are watching! Convince them! For all the hype about Obama’s oratory skills, his persuasion skills in anything other than a presidential election leave much to be desired.
Haters gonna hate, not legislate.
(Full disclosure, which you all know but nonetheless: I work for Fox News and appear on The O’Reilly Factor weekly.)