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Change the Punditocracy Doesn't Want to Believe In

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The national news media and the punditocracy had its hat handed to them by President Obama in 2008 when he leveraged public opinion on the Internet to defy many of their prognostications.

The mid-terms have been pundit pay-back, an "I told you so" not only to him, but to the millions of Americans that schooled them in the last election.

Even here at the Huffington Post, you can read the daily laments: "How Obama Lost His Magic," and Andy Ostroy's "Dude," Where's My President!?" The airwaves are filled with pessimistic polling, all dire Democratic data, even though many campaign experts and candidates doing their own tracking see less dramatic trends.

It is not only the corporate world that is exerting its influence. The media would like their sway over the process back too.

Obama's deft use of the Internet tapped into that groundswell to turn the country around from the calamities that George W. Bush had wrought upon the nation.

During the 2008 campaign, pundits like Chris Matthews had their post-debate verbal tsunamis halted by producers reading Twitter and the immediate opinion base on the web. It caught them off guard. They had to shift gears to learn how to adapt to a world where hundreds of thousands of opinions being voiced instantly were drowning out their own.

With all due respect to Mr. Ostroy's panning of the President's performance on "The Daily Show," what I saw was a little different. It makes a great case study for the dysfunction of our polarized professional punditry.

Even though it was very clear the next day that the media sharks were circling for a kill on the President's high profile visit to Stewart's show, it was equally unambiguous that, once again, average Americans, those not brainwashed by Fox or Right Wing radio, saw the President as he wanted to be seen, in spite of their "expert" spin.

The President Obama of old is still very much with us. He is a bit grayer in the temples from the stress, and he has traded in some of his casualness for a bit more gravitas, but he is still what we ordered: A sensible, reasonable, intelligent man with wisdom and compassion.

For The Daily Show, he did not do his partisan stump speech, which largely blames the Republicans for running the economy into the ditch and putting their heels down in Congress.

Instead, he laid out for the audience his case that a lot was accomplished over the last 18 months in spite of losing millions of jobs before his team could even begin to govern, and with the political headwinds that the Republicans put out there.

Mr. Obama showed sympathy for the millions without jobs, and those losing their homes, but he made no apologies for giving cancer patients protection from the lifetime caps of insurance companies under the Health Care Reform Act, or for stopping our economic slide, albeit imperfectly.

He also was successful at another bit of important messaging to his wide-eyed young voters: Change is not instant, and we argue too much about the 10% of what we didn't get rather than the 90% of what we did accomplish. He went on to remind us that all major social legislation, from Social Security to Medicare, all began imperfectly. The flaws were refined away over time.

The President handled the discussion by taking a firm hand with Stewart. His harder tone and more solemn face maintained his gravitas and his standing.

He even took his host and the pundit class to task for gaming the system as much as the forces that oppose his changes because they affect their control of all of us consumers who should be quiet and do as we're told.

In his early days, most of what Mr. Obama said was rebroadcast and became the talk of talk radio and political television. The pundits these days speak more about his policies, and less about his actual speeches. They find a corner to jab from no matter what the President does. More often, they look for the sound bytes to take pot shots at without reacting to the broader moment.

Dana Milbank at the Washington Post is representative of that type of commentator:

"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. '

Milbank doesn't mention that Mr. Obama went on, patiently, to ground the remark after the laugh at his expense, by continuing to observe that most of the decisions that they made had to be made quickly, with each being weighed to see how much damage losing this bank or that, or making this choice or that would do to the economy.

Obama rightly pointed out that, in spite of Stewart's jab, he and Summers did keep the economy from screaming off the financial cliffs with a cost to the taxpayer lower than the Savings & Loan Bailout under the fiscal conservatives' patron saint, Ronald Reagan.

The wisdom of this presidential appearance was the subject of a fair amount of pundit poking as well. Even though presidents have done shows like softball "The Tonight Show," and everyone's favorite doormat, Larry King, the concept of being the butt of jokes, as many of Stewart's political guests become, seemed a little undignified to many of the paltry profits spouting off the following day.

Milbank and others noted that Stewart's use of the word "Dude" for the president seemed a breach of the formality of his office, but, given the forum, not inconsistent with Stewart's format, and also a level of accessibility which The Daily Show audience reads as a positive.

Mr. Obama was there to get out his message to vote, aimed directly to the millions of young voters who turned up in 2008, and whom he needs to show up to counter the Right Wing Tea Baggers on Tuesday.

If you haven't seen the interview, see it and look for the real message there. If you have seen it, and spent the last 24 hours having your head spun by everyone with a take on this, look using your own laser vision for a change.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Barack Obama Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

Obama has lost the sympathetic ear of the cynics in our media sideshow, particularly in the cutthroat Washington Beltway press corps.

Beltway veterans like journalist/commentator Llewellyn King and even comedians like Stewart often make comment that sounds like disaffected school children who did not get the candy promised for cleaning up the classroom quickly enough.

Experts of nuance, most pundits become obsessed with the details and lose some objectivity on the bigger picture.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column here at HuffPo about Sirius/XM's POTUS channel where I introduced many of you, a week or two before Rick Sanchez' now-famous career meltdown, to "Stand Up with Pete Dominick."

Pete's show, for those who missed the column, forces both the guests and the callers to get off of their soap-boxes and quit taking the rutted Rush road of lobbing verbal grenades. His program exists to provide the listeners good, balanced information so they can decide for themselves.

I hope, in some small way, to be able to do the same thing here at the Huffington Post.

A lot of what goes on in politics and government is complex, and, for most people who don't consider politics a sport, it is often confusing. We want answers to our questions, and explanations as to why things aren't working well.

Some of us take the 30 second shock-ads at campaign time as information. Others look to places like the Huffington Post, radio or the TV news to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, both news organizations and their punditry engage in way too much groupthink though. No matter how seasoned the journalist, no one seems too wild, particularly in the D.C. press corps, to go out on a limb and take a position that may leave them out of the mainstream thinking of the pack of lemmings.

The visionary writer Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the 1976 masterpiece "Network," voiced his rage at the decaying media through his fictional anchorman Howard Beale. Beale pops his cork from the weight of the world and sagging ratings and screams "I'm mad as Hell, and I don't want to take it anymore!" from his network news pulpit. The Entertainment Division of the network takes over the news, and turns his legitimate anger into more ways to sell soap.

Beale's cry to his audience is my cry to you, with a caveat: THINK FOR YOURSELVES, and don't cave in to the fear machines, or get too hooked on the "common wisdom" of any of us.

Have a little uncommon wisdom. Read, listen, and balance.

The truth always hides between the clever lines.

My shiny two.