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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

President Barack Obama graces The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for a full half hour

A few hours ago, President Barack Obama became the first sitting Commander in Chief to appear on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, engaging in a healthy and substantive half-hour discussion about his administration's record and his efforts to move our country forward.

The show, taped at the District of Columbia's Harman Center for the Arts (the Daily Show's home while it is in our nation's capital) was the first ever to consist entirely of nothing but an interview, which seems entirely appropriate considering that the guest was America's chief executive.

President Obama sits down with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart
Photo by Pete Souza, courtesy of the White House

It actually ran long, ending about six minutes after The Colbert Report normally would have begun. No part of the interview was cut from the broadcast.

Moments after the show opened, Stewart introduced the President, who stood and waved in appreciation of the audience's enthusiasm.

After presenting the President with "Mug Force One", Stewart quickly initiated a serious conversation with Obama about the administration's successes and failings, asking a series of gently provocative questions.

The President defended his record, but acknowledged that "change doesn't happen overnight". He was pensive and observant in his answers. The conversation didn't really cover any new territory, but it was far more substantive and meaningful than much of what passes for political discourse on cable. The essential question which underpinned the whole discussion seemed to be, What happened to the transformational change we were promised in 2008?

The President made some important points while attempting to answer that question. He cited the filibuster as a problem, noting that it isn't in the Constitution, has been abused in this Congress to an unprecedented degree, and essentially gives the Republicans veto power over the Democratic majority. The President further explained that the filibuster works against compromise and negotiation, because it pushes people in opposite directions.

(The same is true of Tim Eyman's Initiative 1053, which is an attempt by corporate lobbyists to give Republican legislators the ability block revenue-raising bills in the Graveyard of Progress).

He also alluded to gerrymandering, observing that many House districts are drawn so that they're easier for one party to hold on to.

The President bristled when Stewart described the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as "timid" — a word that many progressives would find appropriate, at least when comparing the bill to what it might have been.

"Jon, I love your show, but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you," he said. "This notion that health care was timid... This is what most people would say is as significant a piece of legislation as we have seen in this country's history."

It's certainly significant, considering how difficult it is to move anything through Congress, but the problem is, it's where we needed to be decades ago. President Obama didn't say this, but he could have reminded everybody that Democrats had a chance to bargain with Nixon, and held out for too much.

If they had been willing to settle for a more incremental bill then, we might be further along the path to single-payer today than we are.

Contemplating the larger question, What happened to the transformational change we were promised in 2008?, the President said as the interview drew to a close, "I guess on all these issues, my attitude is, if we are making progress step by step and inch by inch, then we are being true to the spirit of the campaign."

"I would say yes we can, but... it's not going to happen overnight."

It's true that many people had unrealistic expectations of what Obama could accomplish before he took office. That said, the administration has moved at a snail's pace in addressing some of the transgressions of the Bush error. The President has done little to reverse the assault on our civil liberties, for instance. The Patriot Act is still on the books and the Justice Department is still defending policies instituted by George W. Bush and his minions in federal court.

What's more, the President refuses to order the Department of Justice to quit defending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in court, even though he himself says the policy is indefensible and wants Congress to abolish it.

The President and his team need to express more empathy for their base. Because taking your friends for granted is a mistake. Real leadership and wise governance require two-way communication — a key progressive value.

The administration made some significant progress on this front today by sending the President to The Daily Show and hosting five leading progressive bloggers at the White House for an on-the-record conversation.

If they're smart, they'll make aggressive and genuine outreach a priority from now on, and they'll actively work to build bridges instead of inadvertently burning them.

POSTSCRIPT: USA Today has a surprisingly excellent review of President Obama's appearance on The Daily Show, by Robert Bianco. Highly recommended.


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