By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 11:49 PM
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. He was making this first-ever appearance by a president on the Daily Show as part of a long-shot effort to rekindle the spirit of '08. In the Daily Show, Obama had a friendly host and an even friendlier crowd.
But, as in his MTV appearance a couple of weeks ago, Obama didn't try to connect with his youthful audience. He was serious and defensive, pointing a finger at his host several times as he quarreled with the premise of a question.
Stewart, who struggled to suppress a laugh as Obama defended Summers, turned out to be an able inquisitor on behalf of aggrieved liberals. He spoke for the millions who had been led to believe that Obama was some sort of a messianic figure. Obama has only himself to blame for their letdown. By raising expectations impossibly high, playing the transformational figure to Hillary Clinton's status-quo drone, he gave his followers an unrealistic hope.
"You're coming from a place, you ran on a very high rhetoric: 'hope' and 'change.' And the Democrats this year seem to be running on 'Please, baby, one more chance.'" Stewart observed. "Are you disappointed in how it's gone?"
Obama replied that he was advised after the election that "two years from now, folks are going to be frustrated" -- a prediction he did not make public to his starry-eyed suporters at the time.
"We have done things that some folks don't even know about," Obama ventured.
Oh? "Are you planning a surprise party for us?" the host inquired. In response, Obama recited his well-known, if under-appreciated, list of accomplishments.
"Is the difficulty," Stewart asked, "that you have here the distance between what you ran on and what you delivered? You ran with such, if I may, audacity.... yet legislatively it has felt timid at times."
Stewart had found the sore point between Obama and his base -- and Obama was irritable. "Jon, I love your show, but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you," he said. "What happens," he added, "is it gets discounted because the presumption is, well, we didn't get 100 percent of what we wanted, we got 90 percent of what we wanted -- so let's focus on the 10 percent we didn't get." He said that a cancer patient in New Hampshire helped by the bill "doesn't think it's inconsequential."
"The suggestion was not that it's inconsequential," the comedian pointed out.
Obama leaned in and pointed at the host. "Your suggestion was that it was timid."
Still, the president did not really quarrel with Stewart's notion that Obama has done some of his work in a "political manner that has papered over a foundation that is corrupt."
"I think that is fair," Obama granted.
But when Stewart moved, politely, to point out weaknesses in the health-care legislation, Obama pointed at him again. "Not true!" the president argued.
Obama wore a displeased grin as Stewart diagnosed, with high accuracy, the administration's condition: "The expectation, I think, was audacity going in there and really rooting out a corrupt system, and so the sense is, has [the] reality of what hit you in the face when you first stepped in caused you to back down from some of the more visionary things?"
"My attitude is if we're making progress, step by step, inch by inch, day by day," Obama said, "that we are being true to the spirit of that campaign."
"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."
Obama didn't laugh. "But it's not going to happen overnight," he finished.
Try shouting that slogan at a campaign rally, dude.