BURBANK, Calif. — President Barack Obama stopped by Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” on Tuesday, he but kept his jokes to a minimum.
Instead of playing for laughs in the 23-minute interview, Obama spoke earnestly about his jobs bill, the killing of Muammar Qadhafi and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year.
Qadhafi “had an opportunity during the Arab Spring to finally loosen his grip on power and peacefully transition to democracy. We gave him ample opportunity and he wouldn’t do it,” Obama said in his first interview since the killing Thursday. “Obviously, you never like to see anybody come to the kind of end that he did, but it obviously sends a strong message around the world to dictators that people long to be free.”
Obama voiced some disapproval of Libyans’ willingness to flaunt their former leader’s killing. “That’s not something we should relish,” he said. “There’s a reason after [Osama] bin Laden was killed, for example, we didn’t release the photograph. I think that there’s a certain decorum with which you treat the dead even if it’s somebody who’s done terrible things.”
Obama also pushed back against the notion that he had “led from behind” in Libya, saying it was a term that came from the media and not from him. “We led from the front. We introduced the resolution in the United Nations that allowed us to protect civilians in Libya when Qadhafi was threatening to slaughter them, it was our extraordinary men and women in uniform, our pilots who took out their air defense system.”
The difference in Libya, he said, was getting the support and approval of the U.N., NATO and several Arab countries. “There was never this sense that somehow we were unilaterally making a decision to take out somebody,” he said.
Obama even demurred when Leno asked him to weigh in on the 2012 Republican presidential field, not answering a question about whether he’s been watching the near-weekly GOP debates. “I’m going to wait until everybody is voted off the island,” Obama said. “Once they narrow it down to one or two, I’ll start paying attention.”
Obama also spoke warmly of his one-time rival in his own primary race, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Though Clinton was “understandably tired after the campaign and hesitant about whether or not this was a good fit” to join the administration, the job has worked out well, Obama said. “She stepped up to the plate. She works as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen — she is tenacious — and we are really very proud of her.”
Obama knocked down the still-persistent rumors that Clinton might replace Vice President Joe Biden on the 2012 ticket. “Joe Biden is not only a great vice president, but he has been a great advisor and a great friend to me.”
“I think they’re doing great where they are. Both of them are racking up a lot of miles,” he said. “Joe tends to go more to Pittsburgh, Hillary more to Karachi.”
Though the interview was mostly serious, Obama did crack a few jokes. Discussing Republican opposition to the withdrawal from Iraq, Obama got some laughs: “It’s shocking they oppose something I proposed.”
Asked about his dislike of the reality TV family the Kardashians — whose shows Obama said he’s never watched, though his daughters have — the president said he was “probably a little biased against reality TV partly because, you know, there’s this program on C-SPAN called ‘Congress.’”
With Halloween approaching on Monday, the president said he’s urging first lady Michelle Obama to consider giving out candy this year. “She’s been giving, for the last few years, kids fruit and raisins in a bag,” Obama said. “And I said, ‘The White House is going to get egged … if this keeps up. … You need to throw some candy in there.”
The show opened with Leno and Obama in a dressing room. “Can I get you a teleprompter?” the comedian asked, alluding to criticism by GOP presidential candidates of Obama’s reliance on the device.
“No, Jay, I think I can handle a simple conversation without a teleprompter,” the president responded.
“Really? That is so impressive,” Leno said, as the camera panned to show someone holding a cue card for the host.
Tuesday’s appearance was the president’s fourth on Leno’s show. It went more smoothly than his last one, in March 2009, when Obama caused himself some trouble by joking his 129 game of bowling “was like Special Olympics, or something.” After a backlash from the organization and advocates for the disabled, Obama called Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, from aboard Air Force One to apologize for the quip.
Obama and Leno last shared a stage in May 2010, when Leno emceed the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. There, Leno played it safe, cracking jokes about the president’s mother-in-law, Biden and the press corps.
The president got the big laughs that night, some at Leno’s expense. “I am glad that the only person whose ratings fell more than mine last year is here tonight — great to see you, Jay!” Obama said. “I’m also glad that I’m speaking first because we’ve all seen what happens when somebody takes the time slot after Leno’s.”
Obama arrived in Los Angeles on Monday evening and stopped at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles on West Pico Blvd., where he ordered the No. 9 Country Boy — three wings and a side — and greeted Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).
Obama told Leno that the food smelled too good not to eat while en route to a fundraiser. “The fancy presidential limosine … smelling like waffles,” Obama said. “And I didn’t realize it was so close [to the site of the fundraiser]. So, suddenly, we pull up, and my sleeves were rolled up, and I got a spot on my tie. And my fingers are — I’m looking for one of those wet wipes, you know, to see if I have chicken on my teeth. Anyway, it was not elegant.”
That fundraiser was a small $35,800-a-head event attended by basketball star Magic Johnson and actors Jada Pinkett and Will Smith.
Later on, he went to a second fundraiser at the home of actors Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, co-hosted by “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria. (Griffith’s ex-husband, Don Johnson, was also there.) Afterward, Obama spent the night at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
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