Jon Stewart, also featuring Barack Obama

Dana Milbank sees Obama’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show as less than a triumph. I agree.

On Comedy Central, the joke was on President Obama Wednesday night.

The president had come, on the eve of what will almost certainly be the loss of his governing majority, to plead his case before Jon Stewart, gatekeeper of the disillusioned left. But instead of displaying the sizzle that won him an army of youthful supporters two years ago, Obama had a Brownie moment.

The Daily Show host was giving Obama a tough time about hiring the conventional and Clintonian Larry Summers as his top economic advisor.

“In fairness,” the president replied defensively, “Larry Summers did a heckuva job.”

“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude,” Stewart recommended with a laugh.

Dude. The indignity of a comedy show host calling the commander in chief “dude” pretty well captured the moment for Obama.

There was worse.

“You wouldn’t say you’d run this time as a pragmatist? It wouldn’t be, ‘Yes we can, given certain conditions?’”

“I think what I would say is yes we can, but…”

Stewart, and the audience, laughed at the “but.”

Actually they were laughing at Obama.

I already had my doubts about the thinking on both sides of this strange transaction. For Obama, it looked like nothing but drawbacks. It’s a setting he couldn’t control. A comedian as smart as Stewart can make you look stupid whatever you say. If you make a joke, you are being frivolous about serious stuff. If you are serious, you have no sense of humour (so what are you doing on the show in the first place?). The idea, obviously, was to rekindle some Obama enthusiasm in the Democratic base, but this (assuming he succeeded) would come at the cost of telling the soft conservatives in the middle of the electorate that you prefer yucking it up with the Daily Show demographic to engaging with them. Not something I would have advised.

By the way, was it even a good move for Stewart? A coup, of course, to get the president to abase himself before you that way. Everybody, including me, is talking about the show. On the other hand, although Stewart is smart and funny, he is boring the instant he turns serious. Hypocritical too. I remember waiting for the self-mocking punchline when he tore into Jim Cramer for turning investment advice into shlock entertainment (this from the guy who has turned the nightly political news into an endless running gag.) The punchline never came. He was offended by what Cramer does. Please, this is stockpicking: much too serious a matter for that sort of trivializing treatment.

As for claiming that he is just a comedian cracking jokes, how disingenuous can you get? I thought satirists were supposed to skewer that kind of thing.

Stewart seems to see himself as an intelligent moderate, sick of anger and bitter partisanship and all that. Perhaps he is. But what does the Daily Show have to do with civility, for heaven’s sake? Since when was satire even supposed to be civil? And has anybody ever accused the Daily Show of being fair and balanced–except in the way Fox News is fair and balanced? How does Stewart square this supposed political neutrality with the constant cheering and yelping that come from his young, liberal, evidently GOP-loathing audience? (Obama was right about that, at least: this is his base.) And you noticed, I expect, how Stewart’s questioning of the president challenged him every time from the left. Why so timid? Why the backing down? You wouldn’t say you’d run this time as a pragmatist? That line of questioning does not come from the centre.

Of course Stewart understands this. So what is all this nonsense about the Million Moderate March? Oh, right, he’s joking.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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