Open: Stewart alone on the stage (which looks like a Grecian temple) jokes that tonight’s guest is White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee’s boss.
Steward debuted a new segment called “Let’s Keep the President Waiting,” while he doodled on a pad and made faces. He played with his pen. “You must pay the rent…I can’t pay the rent.”
A paper football was produced, and a bowl of M&Ms. Finally, Obama introduced:
The president entered the auditorium stage, strode out to “Hail to the Chief.” He waved to the audience, big sustained cheers.
“Thank you,” Obama said (a few times).
“This is a nice set,” Obama said. “It reminds me of the convention.”
Stewart: “We actually bought it, it was in a warehouse.”
To questions — Stewart asked, “Are we the people we were waiting for, or does it turn out those people are still out there — and we don’t have their number?”
Obama: “I am feeling great about where the American people are, considering what we have gone through. We have gone through two toughest years of any time since the Great Depression….”
“There is still a lot of good stuff happening, but people are frustrated,” Obama said.
Stewart: You are coming from a place, you ran on very high rhetoric — Democratss are now running on ‘Please baby one more chance.’ Are you disappointed, surprised?
(Obama said he was told around the election time to enjoy the moment, that in two years people would be frustrated. And that is turning out to be true.)
He mentioned home foreclosure, “the economy is growing,” but not as strong as it needs to.
Obama said he looks over the last 18 months and sees how he prevented a second Great Depression, stabilized the economy, passed historic health care reform, financial reform…
“We have done things that people don’t even know about,” Obama said.
Stewart: “What have you done that people don’t know about? Are you planning a surprise party for us?”
(Obama listed his familiar accomplishments) “Is it enough? No,” Obama said. “So I expect and I think most Democrats out there want to see more progress.”
“We have done an awful lot that we talked about in the campaign and we are going to do more,” Obama said.
And we’re back. Stewart asked, How do convince your own party that you have done enough?
“Let me say this about members of Congress,” Obama said.
“Are you going to curse?” Stewart asked.
“No,” Obama said. “I know people feel frustrated about Congress — the fact is there are a bunch of folks who took really tough votes they knew were bad politics….” (he talks about Democrats in swing districts or even Republican districts, doing what they thought was right despite the political consequences, and he hopes they will be rewarded on Election Day)
Obama complained about “millions of dollars of independent money” pouring into the campaign.
He said people want the issues he ran on, and “that is what we delivered.”
Stewart asked, Is the difficulty that you have here the distance between what you ran on and what you delivered? You ran with such, if I may, audacity…..yet legislation has felt timid at times.
Obama takes umbrage:
“John, I love your show, but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you,” he said. “This notion that health care was timid.”
Obama listed the reasons health care is consequential: 30 million now covered, patients bill of rights, kids on their parents policies, cuts the deficit, etc.
“This is what most people would say is as significant a piece of legislation as we have seen in this country’s history,” Obama said.
“What happenss is it gets discounted because assumption is we didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted, we only get 90 percent of what we wanted — so let’s focus on the 10 percent we didn’t get,” Obama said.
He took issue with the policy being not consequential, and Steward reminded him that he didn’t say it was not consequential.
“The suggestion was that it was timid,” Obama said, pointing a finger at Stewart.
Stewart: You ran on the idea that this system needed basic reform. Feels like some reform was done in political manner that has papered over a system that is corrupt.
(Obama sort of agrees)
“Over last two years in emergency situations, our basic attitude was we have to get things done, in some cases quicker,” Obama said.
They worked within the process in stead of transforming the process. “It frustrates some people, it frustrates me,” Obama said.
Some things have changed — rules about lobbyists, the White House visitor logs.
“Did you just invite me to the White House?” Stewart asked.
Obama responded that no, because then they would have to disclose it.
Stewart asked about the higher costs associated with health care reform, and how rates are going up.
“If the point, Jon, is that overnight we did not transform the health care system, that point is true,” Obama said.
“When we promised during campaign ‘change you can believe in,’ it wasn’t change you can believe in in 18 months,” Obama said.
He said Social Security started out as a program for widows and orphans, and later grew into a massive social safety net. Also Civil Rights — that expanded over time. So it will be with health care reform, Obama said.
“The point was we put a framework in place,” Obama said. “That is what we have done over the last 18 months.”
Stewart — were people being naive about expectations? Obama used to complain that you can’t get new results with the same old people — then he hired Larry Summers. “The expectation was audacity,” Stewart said.
(Obama defended his administration’s handling of the financial crisis, talked about difficult choices and how it looked two years ago)
“We saved taxpayers a whole lot of money…”
Summers did “a heckuva job,” Stewart observed. Obama said “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”
(He defended Summers) “Larry was integral in helping us,” Obama said.
Stewart tried not to laugh. Obama spun out a hard-to-follow hypothetical about closing this bank or that bank and added another defense of Summers.
He said most of the jobs lost in this economy were gone before his economic policies were in place.
“This notion that we could quickly transform Washington,” Obama said. “It’s a work in progress, it’s just not going to happen overnight.” But he doesn’t regret promises about change made during the campaign.
“I guess on all these issues, my attitude is if we are making progress step by step and inch by inch, then we are being true to the spirit of the campaign,” Obama said.
“I would say yes we can — but it’s not going to happen overnight,” he added.
Does government still have ability to be agile enough to do change, Stewart wondered.
“There are a couple of things,” Obama said. He wants to change the rules on filibustering. He conceded that Democrats used it when Bush was president, but Republicans are now using it more.
“That makes it very difficult for us to move forward,” Obama said.
Similarly, the way congressional districts are drawn ought to change, Obama said. “So many are so safe,” he said. “It helps to polarize the electorate.”
“Having said all that, we have made a lot of progress over past 18 months that from a historical perspective ranks up there with any 18 months in our history,” Obama said.
More to do: immigration, jobs, education, energy, infrastructure.
Time to wrap it up. Obama slid in a joke about how it would have been more helpful to hold a “Rally to Restore Sanity” two years ago. Agreement among the pool: We don’t get it. The audience laughed, though.
Obama made a plug for everyone to vote on Tuesday. Stewart said he thought maybe Obama had an album drop to plug.
Motorcade back to White House uneventful.