When Barack Obama walked onto the stage of The Daily Show, the crowd applauded as he stood, nearly a foot taller than Jon Stewart. "This is a nice set," the President said, pointing to the fake columns of the temporary studio in D.C., "it reminds me of the convention."
In 2008, Obama took the stage at the Democratic convention and promised that he would bring change we could believe in by mining Americans' instinct for sanity (and enacting center-left legislation). On Wednesday night, Stewart used all 30 minutes of his show to remind him of the convention, not as an earnestly centrist rally organizer but as a liberal critic. The transition between personalities wasn't always smooth — at first, Stewart had trouble articulating his disappointment: "How did we get from hope and change to ... you're not gonna give them the keys, are you?"
Obama explained that he came into office with sky-high approval ratings but, his political advisers warned, "enjoy this now, because two years from now folks are going to be frustrated." And so it happened — people got frustrated!
He acknowledged that "folks" were mainly upset about unemployment before he introduced the theme of the night: "if you look at the track record we've accomplished ... " As he put it, the economy is stabilized (the stimulus and the bailouts were referred to as "our economic policies" throughout the night), "historic" health care and financial reform passed, and smaller things like expanded national service now exist. Cut to commercial.
Stewart then asked why Democrats were running away from Obama.
Obama dodged, and pointed to Democrats in conservative districts like Tom Periello and John Boccieri, who voted for Obama's signature bills even though "they were really bad politics." Those people deserved to be "rewarded for those tough votes."
Then came health care. "You ran with such, if I may, audacity," Stewart said, again flashing back to 2008. "Legislatively it has felt timid at times."
"I have a profound disagreement with you, and I don't want to lump you in with a lot of other pundits," Obama responded, defending the bill. "You've 30 million that are going to be insured ... it gets discounted because the presumption is we didn't get 100 percent of what we wanted, we got 90 percent."
Stewart then popped the big question — why didn't Obama restore sanity? "I don't mean to lump you in with other presidents," he said, "[but] you ran on the idea that this system needed basic reform, it feels like some of the reforms that have passed, like health care, have been passed in a way that papers over what is corrupt."
"When we promised during the campaign change you can believe in, it wasn't 'change you can believe in in eighteen months,'" Obama said.
But why did Obama hire Larry Summers, the embodiment of a "corrupt system?" His defense was that Summers handled some "really complicated stuff" and stabilized the financial system in a way that didn't ultimately cost too much. "Larry Summers did a heck of a job — "
"You don't want to use that phrase, dude."
"Pun intended," said the president, who then tried to explain that most of the unemployment we're experiencing now is a the fault of the Bush administration. He looked forward to the next cycle, saying that he wants to get rid of the filibuster, change campaign finance, and fix gerrymandering, trying to make clear that he still really, really wanted to reform the system. "If we're making progress step by step, inch by inch, day by day, we're staying true to the spirit of the campaign."
The interview ended with Obama encouraging everyone "to go out and vote." Stewart thanked the audience, the credits rolled, then came the ads reminding us about his post-partisan rally to restore the sanity that his guest had promised two years ago.