It’s hard to believe that Barack Obama was the first sitting president to appear on a late-night talk show, if only because, over the course of his presidency, he’s made such appearances, as well as ones on daytime TV and even on web series and podcasts, seem practically commonplace. No president has ever been quite so omnipresent—or, perhaps, so present both to older Ellen viewers and to younger Between Two Ferns viewers—in order to convey his message.
Part of that, of course, is that no president has ever had quite so many media avenues to choose; Bill Clinton may have wanted to have been on a podcast, but there were no podcasts yet. But a bigger part of that seems to be a relaxing of social norms around the presidency. In what was self-consciously styled as something of a farewell interview on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, Obama exhibited all of the traits that defined him in the public eye—including a sort of TV-ready accessibility that neither of the current presumptive nominees can match.
Obama participated in two of the show’s signature bits, “Slow Jam the News” and “Thank You Notes.” I’ve never gotten the first of these segments, which, like many current Tonight Show bits, tend to place a celebrity guest in the position of backup act for a Fallon vocal showcase. (Who are we watching for, anyhow?) But Obama was a game participant, as anyone who’s watched him on one of his many talk show appearances knew he would be. That he briefly broke into a Rihanna impersonation while singing “Work” seemed almost unremarkable; that sort of thing is what one does on talk shows, an art form Obama has mastered.
The comedy sketches, along with Fallon’s lengthy reminiscence of a time he was sweaty when he met the First Lady, seemed to be the toll Obama had to pay in order to get to the “talk” portion. While the interview, which aired Thursday night, was taped before Obama’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton, his messaging about the 2016 election was clear and concise; so too was his call for a vote on the confirmation of Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court vacancy that’s been effectively forgotten in the news cycle. The entire appearance was summed up by Obama talking about Donald Trump—first cracking a joke about the Democrats being happy with him as a nominee, and then getting serious about the threat he feels Trump poses. “What’s happened in that party, culminating in this current nomination, is not something that’s good for the country as a whole, and not something that Republicans should wish for.”
The entire thing was packaged in a valedictory way, with Fallon getting the final thank you note and addressing it, with evident sincerity, to Obama. (That Madonna, who sang early hit “Borderline” at the end of the show, appeared to be performing on the show solely to get the chance to meet her fellow “rebel heart” Obama, drove the point home.)
It was enough to make TV viewers of any political affiliation wistful, solely for the fact that the current President is very gifted at using the media both to entertain and to carry across his ideas. That The Tonight Show, the airiest of the three major late-night offerings, could feature a discussion of Merrick Garland shows the manner in which Obama changed the landscape—one that’ll likely revert back to the historical norm once he’s out of office.
Whether or not one agrees with his ideas, Obama’s manner of carrying them across on The Tonight Show Thursday night compare favorably both to Donald Trump’s late-night appearances this cycle (in which hosts have seemed cowed and solicitous) and to Hillary Clinton’s (which have the tendency to feel strained, given her earnestness in responding to jokey questions). This lack of aptitude on Trump’s and Clinton’s parts likely indicate that our next president will appear on late night less than did Obama—which is a loss of sorts. It’s certainly less important than gauging the president’s availability to the news media, but his or her availability for talk shows has the potential to affect a vastly different audience, one that doesn’t follow every development in the news with tremendous avidity. That audience has been well-served by Obama, even if he did have to swallow a bit of his pride to slow-jam the news. Then again, rewatching it on YouTube—it works because, in his last months in office, he looks like he’s having fun.