He should have said “yes we can, and” instead of “but.” But in general, I don’t buy the criticisms of Obama’s appearance on the Daily Show last night. Some of them seem down-right contradictory: Dana Milbank claims Obama “didn’t try to connect with his youthful audience” in the same paragraph as he claims that he should have been humiliated by Stewart calling him “dude.”
I saw the opposite: a President whose very presence on the show demonstrated a connection to the audience, who was able to laugh both at himself and with Stewart, while speaking even-handedly about his record.
To my mind, his body language was masterful.* He towered over Stewart as he entered, sat forward like a tiger ready to pounce while Stewart worked up the courage to ask tough questions, and was genial, gentlemanly and Presidential especially when he was putting Stewart firmly in his place. In short, it was refreshing to see Obama display the backbone that Colbert and Stewart often (rightly) accuse him of lacking. This doesn’t make him “defensive”; it proves he’s still got much-needed punch. It was also a pretty slick maneuver to force Stewart into 2 minutes of overtime by refusing to let him control the ending of the show. Obama doesn’t need to worry about whether someone calls him “dude.”
But does this mean Stewart “lost” as the debate as Kevin Fallon suggests? Nope. 2.8 million viewers tuned in last night. In addition to garnering a truckload of media attention in advance of his upcoming rally, Stewart also modeled the very values that his rally is meant to promote and celebrate: civil, democratic deliberation.
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 center. Of course Stewart understands this. So what is all this nonsense about the Million Moderate March? Oh, right, he’s joking.
Maybe, but if so Clive Crook doesn’t get this level of satire. The Rally to Restore Sanity is not about being in the political center and it’s certainly not about being neutral. It is about a moderate approach to political discourse, one in which we can deliberate and aim to persuade – whatever our perspective – with civility and even laughter, and at the end of the day maintain a sense of fellow-feeling. In this particular transaction, Obama represents the liberal center, so Stewart had to play from one side or the other in order to model the sort of intelligent deliberation he so yearns to see on both sides of the political spectrum and in the media.
Of course there is a serious and very interesting debate about the extent to which comedians are positioned to play this role. 60 Minutes has been taking comment this week on whether Stewart and Colbert “in danger of taking the joke a step too far?” But as this study from the Pew Center shows, it’s probably reductionist to think of the Daily Show as “just” comedy. Colbert and Stewart are blending and bending the political-entertainment-news-industrial-complex into something new, and they’ve been doing it for awhile.
And meanwhile rally preparations proceed apace. Colbert and Stewart have now joined forces; Arianna Huffington is bankrolling travel expenses for over 10,000 New Yorkers. Oprah Winfrey has given free tickets to an entire studio audience. Over 225,000 have pledged to attend the rally on FB. A “fear/sanity” franchise has blossomed online: you can now buy shirts that say “I’m With Reasonable.” Whether S/C can convert their social media blitz into a teeming mass of bodies on the mall remains to be seen. But some are arguing the rally and its attendant meetups could influence the election. More here.
It could all be hype. I for one will be observing firsthand at the Washington Mall on Saturday to find out for myself. And I’ll be going with Reasonable.
*But take my interpretation with a grain of salt:Robyn Adams has an interesting analysis of how the press frames body language.
UPDATE: Picking up on the politics-and-satire element on this post, just found this great Foreign Policy round-up on Stewart’s counterparts in other countries. For those of us who often feel the US is truly going to hell in a hand-basket, it’s a useful perspective on how downright dangerous this business can be in other places…