At times, one got the sense that Jon Stewart was being merciful. More than just about anyone on television, he can eviscerate public officials, even when they are sitting next to him. But with President Obama in the chair, in full-bore detached, humble, professorial mode–“I think it’s a legitimate question,” etc.–Stewart kept passing on the big openings. When Obama blundered by saying Larry Summers had done a “heckuva job,” Stewart’s response was “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.” When Obama said, “Yes we can, but,” Stewart offered a polite chuckle.
What is perhaps most interesting about the whole appearance is what it told us about Obama. When he is up against the wall, his response is a retreat to reason. No big campaign rhetoric, no zinging attacks. He gets more humble, and more professorial, less dynamic. This is, ironically, exactly the kind of “sanity” that Stewart claims to want in the political discussion–a reasonable debate on the issues in which no one gets dinged for a clumsy soundbite. But that is not how television works, especially on Stewart’s show, which specializes in exploiting soundbites. What will be remembered from this appearance are the stumbles, not the sober framework that contained them.