NEW YORK — It was the morning after President Obama’s first State of the Union, which typically wouldn’t mean much for daytime television shows and their menu of celebrity interviews, cooking tips and fashion segments.
But the hosts of the ABC gabfest “The View” had a different agenda: dissecting the president’s highly anticipated address.
“His health bill, he ain’t walking away from this,” said Barbara Walters.
“No, he’s not walking away from it,” replied Whoopi Goldberg. “You know why? Because he knows I want what they have. Mr. President, I want the health care that you have!”
It’s a point she had been hammering for weeks. “Yeah, yeah!” shouted several women in the audience as the crowd applauded.
“This is the most awesome thing ever,” said Lisa Leonard, 48, an art consultant from San Diego sitting in the front row. “It’s one of the reasons I watch it. When they do the fashion stuff, I tune out. The movie stars, eh. But this is so topical.”
There was a time when talking politics on daytime TV would have been verboten — too polarizing for the lifestyle shows aimed at stay-at-home moms and other female viewers. But after the vivid partisan wrangling on “The View” during the 2008 presidential race became water-cooler fodder, producers realized they had hit a rich vein.
Since then, the show has unflinchingly tackled political issues and, in the process, upended traditional ideas about what women want to watch.
“The old cliche that you’re just going to discuss sex and fashion, both of which we do, that’s over,” Walters said in an interview last week in her dressing room.
In recent days, the five hosts — Walters, Goldberg, Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Sherri Shepherd — have jousted over gay marriage, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s derisive remarks to lawmakers and the appropriate venue for the Sept. 11 terrorist trials. New York Gov. David Paterson made his debut to help analyze the State of the Union speech, joining a cadre of political guests this season that have included Rudy Giuliani, Janet Napolitano and Mike Huckabee.
The political focus is going to get even more intense as this year’s midterm elections near.
“We’re going to run this into the ground for as long as we can,” said executive producer Bill Geddie. “We realized we were tapping into something, that this wasn’t just for Sunday mornings anymore.”
With almost 3.8 million people watching on average this season, “The View” is on track to have its second-highest-rated season ever, just behind last year’s record-setting viewership.
To Geddie, the show’s success underscores how much politics is now intertwined with popular culture. Readers flock to such gossipy political books as “Game Change” the way they devour glossy celeb magazines.
“We live in a time when politicians are as big, if not bigger, than movie stars,” he said. “I mean, who’s a bigger star right now than Scott Brown or Barack Obama?”
The way the hosts handle such guests is also key, Behar said: “I don’t think we’re very wonky or ‘Meet the Press’-ish.”
Campaign veterans in the Beltway have taken note of the program’s emphasis on politics.
“‘The View’ is definitely a show that makes it on to the agenda of staff meetings when you’re doing strategic planning, particularly for national campaigns,” said Kiki McLean, a Democratic strategist who has advised Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore. “Those are women you want to have conversation with.”
Not that it’s necessarily an easy chat: Sen. John McCain is still smarting about the tough questioning he weathered during a visit less than two months before the 2008 election, Walters says.
“A lot of people would rather have an easy daytime interview than come to ‘The View,’” Geddie said.
Politics wasn’t a focus when “The View” debuted in 1997. ABC executives instructed Geddie to “go girly,” he recalled.
But partisanship intruded during the tumultuous 2006-07 season, when liberal moderator Rosie O’Donnell and Hasselbeck, the show’s stalwart conservative, fought fiercely about the Iraq war and other matters during the signature “Hot Topics” segment. After one particularly raw exchange, O’Donnell quit, a month before the end of her contract.
With the current hosts, the arguments don’t get personal, Walters said.
“When Rosie was on the program, she had rage herself, and you had an uneasy feeling about the panel,” she said. “You have people now who can argue and express different points of view without upsetting the audience. They know we are not angry with one another.”
Still, the temperature rises, usually when Hasselbeck and Behar engage. Last week, a discussion about the Sept. 11 trials devolved into an emotional exchange. “Did you lose anyone on 9/11?” Hasselbeck demanded at one point. “Because I did.”
Both women say they are able to shake off the intensity. “Afterward, we kind of give each other a high five,” Hasselbeck said.
While the show still covers a wide range of subjects, from sex scandals to potty training, political news is now regular fare. The hosts prep accordingly, recently getting dense copies of the health-care bills. It’s quite a change of pace for Shepherd, who voted for the first time in 2008.
“Now, I’m watching Joe Scarborough and reading Politico,” she said, “just to get myself ready for work.”