President Obama was not in a laughing mood Wednesday evening during a 22-minute appearance on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” straining to convince the liberal talk show host and his audience that his presidency has been substantial.
Stewart, who has made a career of mocking politicians, tried to maintain his usual on-air personality without crossing a line of disrespect. He was generally deferential to Obama, but what challenges he did throw out caused the president’s mood to quickly grow tense.
Obama was at his most combative in defending the health care bill, which has been almost completely left out of Democratic campaign speeches this fall. Stewart called the health care overhaul “timid.”
The president leaned forward and told Stewart he had “profound disagreement” with the talk show host. He then launched into a defense of the bill, his face showing clear irritation.
“This is what I think most people would say is as significant a piece of legislation as we’ve seen in this country’s history,” Obama said.
When Stewart said he had not argued that the bill was inconsequential, Obama pointed at him: “The suggestion was that it was timid.”
Ultimately, while Obama agreed with Stewart’s assessment that the health care bill had “papered over a system that is corrupt,” he argued that the legislation had created a “framework” for getting what liberals ultimately want in health care, though he did not articulate that was most liberals want is a system run entirely by the government.
“When social security was passed, it applied to widows and orphans and it was a very restricted program, and over time that structure that was built ended up developing into the most important social safety net that we have in our country. The same is true on every piece of progressive legislation,” he said. “We’ve created a structure. We’ve put a framework in place that allowed us then to continue making progress. That’s what we’ve done over the last 18 months.”
Much of the interview centered around that theme. Obama repeatedly said that the change liberals wanted when he was elected in 2008 will not happen quickly, but that he is putting it in motion.
Asked whether his 2008 motto “Yes we can” was still operative, Obama parsed.
“What I would say is, ‘Yes we can, but—“
Stewart interrupted him with a burst of incredulous laughter.
Obama looked surprised but continued his sentence: “—but it is not going to happen overnight.”
Stewart also mocked one of Obama’s favorite stump speech anecdotes, that Republicans have driven the nation into a ditch and now want the keys to the car back: “You’re not going to give them the keys are you?” he said in a whiny voice.
When Obama said he had done things that nobody knew about, Stewart stopped him.
“What have you done that we don’t know about? Are you planning a surprise party for us, filled with jobs and healthcare?” Stewart said, playing to the audience.
When Obama said that top economic adviser Larry Summers had done a “heckuva job,” Stewart immediately raised the specter of former President George W. Bush’s praise for FEMA Director Michael Brown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, calling the president “dude.”
“You don’t want to use that phrase dude,” Stewart said.
Obama said, “Pun intended.”
The reviews on Thursday’s morning shows were harsh.
Joe Scarborough and Jon Meacham spoke at length on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about the president’s interview, remarking that the president did not appear to be enjoying himself, and that his remarks about Washington culture and politics in general came across as joyless lecturing.
“Great politicians love politics,” Meacham said. “You can’t have contempt for the enterprise.”
When journalist Carl Bernstein said that Obama has “disdain” for much of how Washington does business, Scarborough lashed out.
“He should disdain how he did the health bill,” said Scarborough, a former Republican congressman. “He did closed door deals with unions, he did closed door deals with a lot of people. If you want to disdain Washington, disdain Washington, just don’t be a hypocrite about it.”