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Kroft, 60 Minutes go soft and safe in Obama interview

If anybody was wondering why Barack Obama chose 60 Minutes as the one news outlet for an interview on his buy-my-economic-proposals-please TV tour, they got their answer Sunday night: Beyond the 16 million viewers who tune in each week, correspondent Steve Kroft played it safe and soft with the President, much as he had done during the election last year.

While I praised 60 Minutes in November for having built a relationship with Obama that yielded great access and ratings for Kroft's interviews with the then-candidate, I have to criticize the celebrated newsmagazine for being far too gentle with the President on Sunday.

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I supposed some will criticize Kroft for not asking about the unfortunate remark the President made Thursday on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in which the President jokingly compared his ineptitude as a bowler with athletes in the Special Olympics.

Not me. I thought it was a one-day flap, because most fair-minded Americans know that Obama did not say it with any prejudice or intent to harm. It was a silly mistake. Hardly anyone mentioned it on the weekend TV talk shows.

But I am astounded that Kroft did not ask when Obama or his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner knew about the bonuses to A.I.G. executives -- and what the President has to say in response to charges by Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democrat, that the administration urged him to put last minute language into legislation that would guarantee the bonuses be paid.

The contradictory answers that came from the White House last week, raise serious questions about Obama's credibility. To not go there at all in the interview was inexcusable. Thank goodness, CNN was on the case last week in terms of pressing Dodd and administration officials, because CBS News and 60 Minutes sure were not about to risk their relationship with the President to ask the tough questions.

Kroft did ask some questions about A.I.G. -- how could he not? But he gave Obama lots of leeway to repeat the main presidential talking points that viewers heard Thursday on Leno: We are going to be okay. I have a plan and team to deal with the economy. I'm angry, too, but let's not get carried away with out rage. We have to work with Wall Street, or Main Street will suffer even more.

And the President once again defended Geithner, saying not only was there no talk of the embattled cabinet member stepping down, Obama wouldn't let him resign if he wanted to.

If Geithner tried to resign, Obama said he'd tell him, "Sorry Buddy, you've still got the job."

The TV technique that allows Kroft to ask soft questions and still look like he did a tough interview, is a smart one: Kroft almost never smiles – even when the person he is interviewing tries to elicit one with his or her smile. Kroft remained stone-faced during the Obama interview Sunday, and it lent a seriousness of purpose to the conversation.

But Kroft did more than just go gentle with the president Sunday night. He teed up one of Obama's harshest critics for the president, referencing the remarks of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said last week that some of Obama's policies have already made America less safe from the threat of terrorism.

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

Obama gave Kroft a tour of the White House grounds as he answered such questions as: "What is the most frustrating part of the job?"

Guess what it is: "To be confronted with bad choices that flow from decisions" made one and two years before he was president. Translation: Don't blame me, I inherited this mess from Bush.

Steve Kroft is a fine correspondent, and 60 Minutes is one of the great journalistic institutions of this country. They can both do better than this.

(Above: CBS News photo of Steve Kroft and Barack Obama by Aaron Tomlinson)

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