With the electorate likely just a few days away from sending a vastly more Republican and hostile Congress his way, President Obama went on one of America's leading comedy shows to defend his record and, hopefully, recapture some of the magic of his 2008 presidential race.
In the first appearance of any sitting president on the cable network, Comedy Central, Barack Obama appeared on a special episode of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" just a few days before the host holds a "Rally to Restore Sanity" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The show, which is usually taped before a live studio audience in New York, taped in Washington for the occasion and President Obama seemed relaxed as he bantered with a host who is widely considered liberal but who nonetheless asked pointed questions of the commander in chief.
Responding to the charge of timidity, Obama defended his health care legislation.
"Jon, I love your show, but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you -- this notion that health care was timid," he said.
Obama listed the reasons he believes health care is consequential: 30 million Americans now covered, a patients' bill of rights, kids on their parents' policies, cutting the deficit. Republicans would disagree with some of those claims, especially the last one.
"This is what most people would say is as significant a piece of legislation as we have seen in this country's history," Obama said.
Obama stuck up for his administration on the financial crisis, saying that Larry Summers had done a "heckuva job." Stewart chimed in, "You don't want to use that phrase, dude" -- an allusion to George W. Bush's praise of his emergency management pointman in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Obama also claimed that his economic recovery plans had saved taxpayers billions.
On the larger question of change, Obama said, "When we promised during the campaign 'change you can believe in,' it wasn't change you can believe in in 18 months. It was ‘change you can believe in — but we’re going to have to work for it.'"
There was witty repartee. When Obama claimed there was a lot the public didn't know about his accomplishments, Stewart asked: "Are you going to throw a surprise party for us?"
Obama listed familiar accomplishments like health care and stanching the loss of jobs and added, "Is it enough? No. So I expect and I think most Democrats out there want to see more progress."
Obama's not the first president, of course, to appear on popular shows. But each president or presidential candidate has used these occasions differently. In 1992, Bill Clinton appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" after he'd all but won the nomination but at a time when his popularity was plummeting and he was seen largely through the prism of draft evasion and accusations of extramarital affairs. A number of popular TV appearances helped reset his image.
By contrast, Obama's appearance on Stewart is more like a speech to a labor rally or making an ad for African-American radio stations. It's rallying the base. Young people remain one of the few demographics that support the president, and using "The Daily Show" as a way to reach them made sense on a day when the president also sat down at the White House with liberal bloggers. If the show allowed Obama to seem funny and cool instead of serious and aloof, then all the better for a White House that would like nothing more than to recapture the spirit of 2008, when Obama was America's preferred vehicle for change.
Meanwhile, in a spontaneous sidewalk interview in Washington Wednesday night, Stewart told National Journal that he didn’t even have a ballpark estimate of how many would turn out on the National Mall for his widely hyped rally. “Oh, God. No one knows,” Stewart said. “We don’t have an infrastructure to measure that sort of thing.”
Stewart – wearing a weathered Mets hat, untucked green T-shirt, and khakis, with a satchel over his shoulder spilling newspapers – said the rally would not veer toward the overtly political, but instead would try to stay true to the idea of striking a blow, if a satirical one, for moderation.
Obama on The Daily Show Part 1
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Barack Obama Pt. 1|
Jim O'Sullivan contributed to this article.