Here's What Obama Had to Say on Jay Leno Last Night

There are numerous events playing out across the world that require President Barack Obama’s attention. Some of them, such as Russia’s decision to grant asylum to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, have implications for the president’s perceived influence and his stature on the world stage. While it is hard to imagine that Jay Leno asked many questions that had not been preapproved by the Obama administration, Leno compelled Obama to speak substantively on issues ranging from Snowden and his PRISM allegations, to Trayvon Martin, to the coming implementations of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Jay Leno is hardly the David Frost of late night, and President Obama didn't work up much of a sweat as he carefully and confidently reiterated Jay Carney-approved positions. However, Leno gave Obama the opportunity to speak credibly on a range of issues, and the president took it.

After a cringe-worthy opening monologue in which Leno made a disingenuously self-deprecating remark about experiencing unemployment (ouch, Conan), the first real question Leno asked Obama was about the recent closing of U.S. embassies across the Middle East and North Africa, ostensibly because of the threat of an Al-Qaeda attack. It was obvious that the question's subtext was the controversy surrounding the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and Republicans' attempts to drum up a scandal.

Obama wasted no time in answering the question, emphasizing the need to take threats seriously, and cautioning that, “This radical, violent extremism is still out there, and we’ve got to stay on top of it. It’s also a reminder of how courageous our embassy personnel tend to be, because you can never have 100% security in some of these places.” Although Leno moved the discussion seamlessly to the NSA, it was Obama who first mentioned Snowden. Obama acknowledged that the American public should be skeptical about government programs that may encroach on personal privacy, but he lost me a bit when he said, rather perfunctorily, “There is no spying on Americans .… We don’t have a domestic spying program.” Really? We don’t? Sure, you can argue the semantics of whether the NSA's extensive collection of American citizens' communication data amounts to a “program,” but to bluntly assert that the United States government does not engage in domestic surveillance is simply ludicrous.

The president was noncommittal regarding Snowden himself, and Russia’s decision to offer the whistle-blower asylum. Obama gave no indication that the he would take extraordinary measures to secure Snowden and return him to the United States to stand trial. However, he did accuse Snowden of jeopardizing national security, and failing to work within the existing framework for voicing concerns, which was established by last year's Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. However, there are more exclusions and exceptions to the bill's so-called whistle-blower protections than you can shake a stick at (see Section 105 in particular). Besides, the Obama administration has been notoriously ill disposed toward whistle-blowers in the past. Amazingly, Obama accused Russia of slipping into a Cold War mentality, and did so without sounding hostile or exasperated. He simply situated the decision to grant Snowden asylum within the complex historical dynamic between the United States and Russia, whose relationship is often imperfect, but remains incredibly important.

Obama hit his stride when the conversation turned to health care and the economy. He has some moderately encouraging facts on his side: the U.S. unemployment rate just fell to 7.4 percent, the lowest it’s been since 2008, and there has been significant improvement in U.S. housing markets.

Leno also gave Obama a boost by bringing up the country's failing infrastructure, including crumbling bridges and inadequate highways, asking “Would it be possible to have a modern [Works Progress Administration]?” The president immediately expressed a desire to create infrastructure-based construction and urban-renewal jobs, but suggested that congressional Republicans only seem to be interested in symbolically repealing Obamacare for the 40th time. Obama said, "I'm just going to keep on Republicans to join with us." I'm not going to hold my breath. The end of the fiscal year is rapidly approaching, and hardly any of the legislation required to actually run the government has passed. For instance, House Republican leaders recently jeopardized the success of a farm bill by attempting to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program, even though several agricultural programs were set to expire on September 30.

While the Tonight Show interview was not exactly hard-hitting, Jay Leno did a commendable job of asking questions that required substantive and serious answers from Obama. And while he may not be giving me the answers I’d like to hear on every subject, Obama is clearly interested in governing, which is more than I can say about many of his opponents.