By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 7:39 PM
Chief executive sparred with chief fake-news comedian over the velocity of change Wednesday evening, separated only by a desk designed like a slice of the Capitol dome -- and by a gap in perception over the accomplishments of the Obama administration in its first 21 months.
"Daily Show" host Jon Stewart devoted the entire 22-minute show to interviewing the president in the main theater at the Harman Center for the Arts on F Street NW. Stewart gently pressed President Obama to account for campaign promises that have not been delivered upon and to explain why Democrats are struggling to convince the American public that they've effectively used their majorities in Congress.
"You're two years into your administration," Stewart said in his opening volley, "and the question that arises in my mind is: 'Are we the people we were waiting for, or does it turn out those people are still out there and we don't have their number?' How are you feeling about that?"
"I'm feeling great at where the American people are, considering what they've gone through," said Obama, who wore a charcoal suit, steel-blue tie and stern look of concentration. "We've gone through two of the toughest years of any time since the Great Depression. And in light of that, the fact that people have been resilient, folks are still out there opening businesses. . . . There's still a lot of good stuff happening. But people are frustrated and a lot of people are hurting still."
Obama is the first sitting president of the United States to appear on the comic news program, which in the past year has hosted former chief executives Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. ("The Daily Show" has also courted George W. Bush, but that invitation has not borne fruit.) There were about 550 people in attendance -- many were Congressional staffers, and most waited for several hours on F Street NW before passing through tight security.
There was none of the rollicking humor for which "The Daily Show" is known, and the dialogue was fairly redundant: Obama noted and re-noted the "historic" legislative change of health-care reform and financial regulation, and Stewart suggested and re-suggested that perhaps those actions didn't go far enough to transform the stagnant structure of Washington.
"You ran with such, if I may, audacity," Stewart said. "Yet, legislatively, it has felt timid at times. I'm not sure, at times, what you want out of health care."
"Jon, I love your show, but this is something where, you know, I have a profound disagreement with you," Obama said. "And I don't want to lump you in with a lot of other pundits, but this notion that health care is timid . . . " The president then stated that 30 million people are getting health insurance who didn't have it previous to the bill, that young people who don't have health insurance can stay on their parents' until age 26, and that reform will cut the budget deficit by over a trillion dollars.
"This is what I think most people would see as significant piece of legislation as we've seen in this country's history," Obama continued. "But what happens is it gets discounted because the presumption is, 'Well we didn't get 100 percent of what we wanted. . . . Let's focus on the 10 percent we didn't get.' "
"It's not that it's inconsequential -- " Stewart began.
"You said it was timid," Obama interjected.
"I'll tell you what I mean, and I don't mean to lump you in with other presidents," Stewart said, to laughter from the audience. "If I were to try to coalesce whatever crticism of it there may be, it is 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 done in a very political manner that has papered over a foundation that is corrupt."
"That, I think, is fair," said Obama, who cited the Senate filibuster and district gerrymandering as systemic roadblocks to more efficient and less divisive governing.
Stewart cited Clinton player Larry Summers's role in the administration as evidence that Obama has not been totally committed to bringing true reformers into government, which set the president up for the only semi-gaffe of the night. The president said Summers did "a heckuva job" during the thick of the financial crisis, prompting Stewart and the audience to sputter into laughter.
The sober comedian and the even more sober president agreed on one thing:
It's " 'yes we can,' given certain conditions," Stewart said.
" 'Yes we can,' but it's not gonna happen overnight," Obama said.
The president's appearance was an Act I finale to Comedy Central's weeklong occupation of the District. The culmination is its avowedly "apolitical" Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the Mall on Saturday. There are scant details on the event itself.
"We don't know what we're doing," Stewart said before Monday's taping, "but we're doing it up."
The show featuring Obama airs Wednesday night at 11 on Comedy Central.