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Obama's Less Than "Special" Week

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
During the presidential primary season, then-candidate Barack Obama's poor performance at a bowling alley briefly threatened to blossom into a full-blown disaster.

It fed the notion, pushed by conservative critics, that Mr. Obama was an arugula-eating elitist who was out of touch with the needs and lifestyle of regular Americans. (A similar criticism was leveled – more effectively – at windsurfing 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry.)

Now bowling is again causing the president problems: As has been widely reported, the president quipped last night on the "Tonight Show," in reference to his recent attempt to bowl, that "it was like Special Olympics."

On "Good Morning America" today, Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver said Mr. Obama called him last night – before the "Tonight Show" aired, but after the taping – to apologize.

"He expressed his disappointment and he apologized, in a way that was very moving," Shriver said. As Jonathan Martin reports, the president also said he would like to host Special Olympics athletes at the White House for basketball or bowling.

Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton did damage control as the press corps flew back to Washington, telling reporters that Mr. Obama "thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world." Burton played down the "offhand remark" and said it "was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics."

But the damage was done. The gaffe marked something of an appropriate coda to a tough week for the president, who has seen his efforts to convince Americans of the importance of his ambitious budget plan partially drowned-out amid populist anger over the AIG bonuses.

As CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller points out, the crack wasn't even original: In the Bill Murray movie "Stripes," after Murray's character tries to do five pushups on a bet, his friend, played by Harold Ramis, tells him, "I think you're ready for the Special Olympics."

Mr. Obama is an unusually self-assured politician; his ill-conceived attempt at self-deprecating humor reflects the inherent difficulty a president faces in trying to walk the line between serious and jovial while appearing on a late-night comedy show. (Maybe that's why no previous sitting presidents have elected to do so.)

Just by going on the show, Mr. Obama opened himself up to criticism that he was spending his time on unimportant tasks when he should be fixing the economy; the New York Post's cover today read, "No Joke! O Yucks It Up On Leno As Economy Burns."

There is now even speculation that Mr. Obama will appear on The Simpsons; a press release today notes that "Bookies Paddy Power are offering 4/1 odds" that the president will show up in Springfield, as his "willingness to use new media to reach the masses means the odds of him joining Homer and family are now looking very good indeed!"

The president has also taken some criticism for taking the time to fill out an NCAA bracket and explain his picks to ESPN; no less than Duke Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski's commented that "As much as I respect what [Mr. Obama is] doing, really, the economy is something that he should focus on, probably more than the brackets." (He added, it should be pointed out, that "I love the guy.")

The president, notably, kept Duke out of his Final Four; he later brushed off the comment, noting he "didn't take [Duke] to go to the finals" and that Coach K is "a competitive guy."

Republicans, however, seized on the opportunity to cast Mr. Obama as spending too much time on unserious matters, and the "Tonight Show" appearance only gives them more ammo. They were careful, however, not to push too hard at a time when the country has effectively descended into (March) madness.

"The AIG bonuses make the president subject to the charge that he's living above the store but he's not minding it," Sen. Lamar Alexander said, according to CNN. "He's even found time to fill out his NCAA basketball brackets, which is a healthy thing to do in my opinion."

Added Sen. John Cornyn: "I appreciate that President Obama has completed his 'March Madness' Tournament Bracket. Yet the organizational chart of his administration still has far too many open slots."

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