Journalists Left on Sidelines as Stewart Questions Obama

Stewart questions Obama on campaign promises, the effectiveness of health care reform, and the road ahead on The Daily Show Wednesday.

by Matthew L. Schafer

Last night, Jon Stewart and President Barack Obama gently sparred over what Stewart hinted was a lack of progress.  The Daily Show visit comes just three days before Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” and only a week before election day.  Obama is not new to the late night circuit; he has also appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“Over and over again we have moved forward an agenda that is making a difference in people’s lives every day,” Obama said, citing health care reform, credit card reform, and economic private sector job growth.  “My expectation and hope is that if you look at the track record that we’ve accomplished… we have done an awful lot we talked about during the campaign.”

Despite headlines like USA Today’s “President Obama: The new First Dude,” Obama’s appearance on The Daily Show was a rather serious exchange.  Indeed, Stewart, although slightly more reserved than his normal self, asked pointed questions, and even interrupted the President at some points.

“Is the difficulty that you have here the difference between what you ran on and what you delivered?”  Stewart asked.  “You ran with such, if I may, audacity, yet legislatively it has felt timid at times. That I am not even sure at times what you want out of a health care bill.”

Stewart’s interview with the President is yet another step towards Stewart’s consistently rising star as both a media critic and a social commentator.  This week, Stewart was ranked as the most influential man in the United States by AskMen.com; Obama came in at the twenty-first most influential.

While comedic moments peppered the interview, Obama and Stewart remained largely focused on health care, the economy, and the progress of the Obama Administration.  Bob Mann, former Communications Director for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, argued that while Obama may have appeared to come off as too serious, he thinks Obama handled the interview well.

“The temptation would be to go on an yuck it up with Stewart,” Mann told Lippmann Would Roll. “Maybe he could have been a little looser, but I think Obama and his people saw this as an opportunity to make several important points about the economy and about the course of the country to a specific audience and he was determined not to let Stewart get him off message.”

In spite of the apparent determination to stay on message, Stewart forced Obama to address campaign promises that have yet to come to fruition.  From “Yes we can” to health care promises, Stewart took the president to task.  Obama finally acquiesced, recognizing that the campaign slogan is more realistic as “Yes we can, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Of course, while many in the news media have focused on whether appearing on The Daily Show is unpresidential and others have focused on whether Obama’s appearance hurts Jon Stewart’s credibility, the most interesting aspect is that a self-avowed comedian had one of the most serious conversations with the President of any “real” journalist.

While Forbes’ Magazine asked today whether Stewart is a newsman, funny man, or pundit, the real question should be, does it matter?  As long as Stewart is asking tough questions that others are not asking, it seems unnecessary to waste energy trying to categorize who exactly Stewart is and what role he plays.  The obsession, it seems, is that journalists are afraid to admit that a comedian is playing their prescribed role better than they are.  Indeed, when was the last time a journalist spoke so frank with a president?

“I don’t mean to lump you in with other presidents,” Stewart told the President.  “I think if I were to try to coalesce whatever criticism of it may be it’s that you ran on the idea that this system needed basic reform, but it feels like some of the reforms that have  passed… have been done in a very political matter that has papered over a foundation that is corrupt.”

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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