By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles
President Obama ought to have a reserved parking space in Burbank by now. The commander-in-chief made his sixth visit to “The Tonight Show” on Tuesday, his first since being reelected last November.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Obama and host Jay Leno discussed a variety of subjects, including healthcare, the economy, the death of the Trayvon Martin, the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, his “bromance” with John McCain and tensions with Russia.
That left little time for the usual late-night small talk, though Leno did squeeze in a few barbs about the president’s graying hair and his professed love for broccoli.
First on the docket was the global terror warning issued over the weekend. Leno asked whether the warning, as some have suggested, was an overreaction following the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last year.
Obama refuted that possibility but said “the first thing I think about when we wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed is making sure that I’m doing everything I can to keep Americans safe.”
The subject provided an easy segue into a discussion of the NSA’s massive data-gathering program, leaked to the media earlier this year by Edward Snowden. The president defended the program, saying “this intelligence-gathering that we do is a critical component of counterterrorism,” but expressed sympathy with those who are concerned about government overreach — in fact, he said he was wary of the program himself when he came into office, and added “additional safeguards” to ensure that civil liberties were being protected.
“We should be skeptical about the potential encroachments on privacy,” Obama said, though he asserted that “none of the revelations show that government has abused these powers.”
As for the tense relations with the Russian government, which granted Snowden a year of asylum, Obama said, “There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.”
He also expressed disapproval of severe anti-gay measures recently enacted in that country. “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” he said.
The president did not, however, expect Russia’s human-rights record to be an issue during the Winter Olympics in Sochi: “I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”
Less tense, at least at the moment, is Obama’s relationship with onetime rival McCain, who’s been an important ally in the fight for immigration reform.
“That’s how a classic romantic-comedy goes. Initially you’re not getting along and then you keep on bumping into each other,” he joked, praising McCain’s willingness to “go against the grain of his own party.”
Leno also inquired about another former Obama adversary, Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose recent lunch with the president fueled the already-rampant speculation about her 2016 campaign plans. “By the end of my first term, we had become genuinely close,” he said. Asked whether she was “measuring the drapes in the Oval Office,” Obama fired back, “Keep in mind she’s been there before. She doesn’t have to measure them.”
After Obama explained some of the changes that will take place once key parts of his healthcare plan go into effect Oct. 1, Leno turned to the subject of Trayvon Martin, expressing admiration for the president’s recent remarks about the verdict and the larger issues of racial discrimination.
“What I wanted to try to explain was why this was a particularly sensitive topic for African American families, because a lot of people who have sons know the experience they had of being followed, being viewed suspiciously,” he said.
“We all know that young African American men disproportionally have an involvement in criminal activities and violence, for a lot of reasons,” the president continued, citing factors such as poverty, failing schools and blighted communities.
“That’s no excuse, but what we also believe in is everybody should be treated fairly and the system should work for everyone. So what I’m trying to do is just make sure that we have a conversation and that we’re all asking ourselves are there some things that we can do to better foster understanding and to make sure that we don’t have laws in place that encourage the kind of violent encounter that we saw there that resulted in tragedy,” he said.