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Eric Deggans Headshot

Jon Stewart's incisive Obama interview proves he deserved the President's time

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If anything comes of President Barack Obama's historic visit to Comedy Central's Daily Show, I hope it is this:

People will stop griping about how such appearances cheapen the Presidency.

Because the President's stop by the Daily Show Wednesday -- historic because he is the first sitting president to appear on the program -- was a substantive, spirited debate on some of the central questions which have most troubled liberals and progressives about his administration.

Host Jon Stewart was respectful and irreverent -- cracking a joke about former FEMA director Michael Brown even as he was challenging the president on the idea that his health care legislation has "papered over a foundation that is corrupt" instead of implementing substantive change. Criticizing the hiring of longtime financial industry heavyweights such as Lawrence Summers, Stewart asked whether the president wasn't playing pragmatist a little too much, replacing the audacity of change he promised on the campaign trail with timidity.

Obama seemed to bristle at times over the comic's assumptions, defending Summers' contribution in keeping the nation's recession from becoming another Great Depression. "This notion that health care was timid...this is as significant a piece of legislation as we've seen in this nation's history," he said. Later, he allowed "If the point is that overnight we didn't transform the health care system; that point is true."

"Well, when you say it like that, it sounds petty," joked Stewart in response.

"When we promised change you can believe in, it wasn't change you can believe in in 18 months," the President added.

This was no typical Daily Show sitdown. Stewart dispensed with the usual sketches and jokey reports that fill most segments to devote his entire half-hour show -- and beyond, stretching many minutes into channelmate Stephen Colbert's timeslot -- to his Obama interview.

Handing Obama a cup emblazoned with the presidential seal -- Stewart called it Mug Force One -- the comic wasted little time diving into a series of rambling yet passionate questions about Democrats running from the administration's accomplishments, along with queries on the difference between the rhetoric of Obama's campaign and his actions as president.

"You ran on very big rhetoric: hope and change," Stewart said. "And the Democrats this year seem to be running on 'please baby, one more chance.' How did we go in two years from hope and change to 'You're not going to give (Republicans) the keys?'"

Obama countered that most of the jobs lost in the last two years ended before his financial reforms took effect, several Democrats are running in essentially Republican districts requiring they be careful about how they campaign and many voters remain unaware of the progress the administration has made on many issues.

"If we're making progress, we're being true to the spirit of the campaign," he said. "I would say 'Yes we can, but it's not going to happen overnight.'"

It may not have been the detailed discussion of redistricting you might find on Meet the Press, but it was a fair-minded exploration of issues at the heart of the supposed 'enthusiasm gap' between Democrats and Republicans days before the midterm elections. And it was an exchange substantive enough to shame those who tried to act as if a sitting president going on such a show was like baking cookies on a Today show segment.

(And I want some of whatever substance led GOP strategist Nicole Wallace today to tell Good Morning America Obama was "begging" Stewart for approval during his interview. Becuase if she really thinks that's what happened, we must have been watching different interviews.)

The fact is, Obama long ago realized that our modern media environment requires reaching potential supporters wherever they choose to spend time -- and Stewart's Daily Show offers an awesome repository of liberal-friendly faces to pitch just before an important election. (small wonder the President ended his appearance by urging the audience to vote; judging by which issues they applauded, there were few Tea Party members in the house that night).

It also proved a potent advertisement days before Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity Saturday. "The other thing that might have made a difference is if you had held the Rally to Restore Sanity two years ago," the President said.

But who knew then it would take a late night comic to put the brakes on the rampant absurdity filling government and media during the most turbulent times of our recent history?

Jon Stewart, you have most certainly arrived.