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Obama's Tonight Show Visit Sparks Controversy ... and Best Ratings in 11 Years

President Barack Obama compared his critics to Simon Cowell and his bowling to the Special Olympics during a visit to the Tonight Show on Thursday. In the first-ever late-night TV visit by a sitting president — which host Jay Leno gushed was "one of the best nights of my life" — Obama looked for laughs amid the political talk, even calling his score of 129 "like the Special Olympics or something" at the White House bowling alley.   The White House was quick to respond after the 35-minute interview, insisting Obama didn't mean to be offensive. "The president made an off-hand remark... "

Anna Dimond

President Barack Obama compared his critics to Simon Cowell and his bowling to the Special Olympics during a visit to the Tonight Show on Thursday.

In the first-ever late-night TV visit by a sitting president — which host Jay Leno gushed was "one of the best nights of my life" — Obama looked for laughs amid the political talk, even calling his score of 129 "like the Special Olympics or something" at the White House bowling alley (see 20:55 mark in the full interview below).  

The White House was quick to respond after the 35-minute interview, insisting Obama didn't mean to be offensive.

"The president made an off-hand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told ABC News. "He thinks the Special Olympics is a wonderful program that gives an opportunity for people with disabilities from around the world."

When Leno asked about "being judged so quickly" after the election, Obama said he welcomed the challenge. "In Washington, it's a little bit like American Idol, but everybody is Simon Cowell," he said. "Everybody's got an opinion."

"Everybody" also seemed to tune in to Obama's drop-by, which matched The Tonight Show's highest ratings since May 14, 1998 (the night of the Seinfeld finale).

Obama's appearance was part of a wide-reaching effort to promote his agenda for the economy. He did interviews on ESPN's SportsCenter (where he filled out an NCAA tournament bracket) and 60 Minutes, to air Sunday. He's also scheduled to speak at a prime-time news conference on Tuesday.

What do you think of Obama's Leno appearance? Did he hit the right tone?