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Kurtz: Obama goes from comfy sofa to hot seat

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes" says Obama was more relaxed than past interviews
  • NEW: President fired back at sniping from former VP Dick Cheney, Kroft says
  • NEW: Kroft tells Howard Kurtz he was surprised at Obama's aggressive answer
  • President has interviews with Jay Leno, "60 Minutes" in same week
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By Howard Kurtz
CNN "Reliable Sources" host
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(CNN) -- The venues could hardly be more different: Jay Leno's couch and Steve Kroft's hot seat.

President Obama goes from Jay Leno's sofa to Steve Kroft's hot seat in the same week.

President Obama goes from Jay Leno's sofa to Steve Kroft's hot seat in the same week.

That hot seat, figuratively speaking, was in the Oval Office, where the "60 Minutes" correspondent interviewed the president Friday evening.

"I think we asked him a lot of hard questions," Kroft told me Sunday on "Reliable Sources." "But I have to say that I found him probably more relaxed this week than at any other time that I had interviewed him."

I asked whether he felt the need to be more polite with an incumbent president than a mere White House wannabe.

"I think that interviews with presidents are different than almost anything else," Kroft said. "They're sort of the last bastion of civility ... particularly when you're in the Oval Office. You're not supposed to wag your finger at him, and you're not supposed to get -- it's supposed to be civil. And so you always try and keep that in mind."

Kroft is no stranger to the Obama White House. He interviewed the Illinois senator a number of times during the campaign, and snared the first post-election interview with Obama, and his wife Michelle, seen by 25 million viewers on the CBS newsmagazine. Kroft says the program's huge audience had to be a major factor in Obama's decision to return.

In the interview, Obama fired back at former Vice President Dick Cheney for telling CNN's John King on last week's "State of the Union" that the president's policies on torture and Guantanamo Bay have made America less safe.

Obama said, "How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment."

Kroft told me he was taken aback by Obama's answer: "I thought there were going to be two responses. I think that either the first response was going to be, 'I don't want to talk about Dick Cheney, it's Dick Cheney,' or he was going to tee off on him, which he decided to do very, very aggressively. So I was a little surprised."

So to return to my earlier question: Why would Obama submit to "60 Minutes" questioning after the relative ease of light banter on the "Tonight Show"?

The answer is that the president, trying to get off the defensive during AIG Outrage Week, is on a certified media blitz. That's why he played the Leno card, risking criticism that he shouldn't be making jokes in Burbank while the economy is crumbling. That's why he handicapped the NCAA playoff brackets on ESPN, risking criticism that he shouldn't be worried about college hoops while the banking system remains in crisis. Video Watch how Obama is using television »

Kroft was just another stop on the tour. On Tuesday, Obama holds his second prime time news conference, and it appears that all the broadcast networks are going to carry it. Not since Ronald Reagan has a president so easily persuaded the networks to forgo their lucrative entertainment programming. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were often turned down by one or more networks. Of course, it's early in this administration.

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But for the moment, Obama means ratings. That's why Leno, Kroft and ESPN's Andy Katz all want the president, and why he keeps gracing magazine covers.

Will the full-court press work? It depends on how the economy is faring, of course, though it never hurts for a president to display his personal charm. But it also depends on how Obama handles the more aggressive encounters with journalists such as Steve Kroft.

All About Barack Obama60 MinutesThe Tonight Show with Jay Leno

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