Barack Obama photo

Interview with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show"

October 27, 2010

STEWART: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the president of the United States, Barack Obama. [cheers and applause]

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you! Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. [laughs]

STEWART: Please have a seat.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. [cheers and applause] Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

STEWART: I'm sorry; that's all the time we have. [laughter] Thank you for joining us.

THE PRESIDENT: This is a nice set.

STEWART: Thank you very much.

THE PRESIDENT: It reminds me of the convention. [laughter]

STEWART: We actually bought it. It was in a warehouse and we bought it. We had it chiseled. Let me give you "Mug Force One." This is yours. [laughter]


STEWART: There's no water in it; let me get some for you. I'll get that on the thing there. Thank you so much for coming by. There you go. [cheering] It's fresh. It's fresh. [applause]

Does that happen to you wherever you go? Is that just a wild -- when you -- because when you guys go to work, do people -- [laughter] -- typically applaud? It's a nice feeling.

THE PRESIDENT: It was a wonderful welcome. It does not happen, for example, when I go to the Republican caucus meetings. [laughter]

STEWART: I see; slightly different. So here you are --


STEWART: -- you're two years into your administration, and the question that arises in my mind, are we the people we were waiting for? [laughter and applause] Or does it turn out those people are still out there and we don't have their number? How are you feeling about that?

THE PRESIDENT: [laughs] Well, you know, I'm feeling great about where the American people are, considering what we've gone through. I mean, we've gone through the two toughest years of any time since the Great Depression. And in light of that, the fact that people have been resilient, that folks are still out there working and opening businesses and, you know, working in the community, looking after their families, taking care of their responsibilities, that's encouraging. So, there's still a lot of good stuff happening.

But people are frustrated. You know, a lot of people are hurting out there, still, and you know, in that environment, I think they're hoping that we can do a little bit better here in Washington than we've been doing.

STEWART: Now, do you -- is that -- do you feel that as well? Because it is -- you know, you're coming from a place, you ran on very high rhetoric, hope and change, and the Democrats this year seem to be running on, please, baby, one more chance. [laughter and applause]

Now, how did we go, in two years, from hope and change, we are the people we've been looking for to, you're not going to give them the keys, are you? Is it -- are you disappointed in how it's gone? Are you surprised that other people, even your base, can be disappointed? Or do you reject that narrative?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, look, when I won and we started the transition, and we looked at what was happening in the economy, a whole bunch of my political folks came up and said, you know what, enjoy this now, because two years from now, folks are going to be frustrated. And that is in fact what's happened.

When you've got 9.6 percent unemployment, when folks are seeing their homes underwater, when the economy is growing, but is still not growing as fast as it needs to to make up for the 8 million jobs that were lost, yeah, folks are going to be frustrated, and that's going to reflect itself in the political environment.

But having said that, I look over the last 18 months and I say, we prevented a second Great Depression, we've stabilized the economy, an economy that was shrinking is now growing, we've got nine months of consecutive private-sector job growth, we have passed historic health- care reform, historic financial regulatory reform, we have done things that some folks don't even know about.

STEWART: What have you done that we don't know about? [laughter] Are you planning a surprise party for us -- filled with jobs and health care?

THE PRESIDENT: No, but -- you know, when you look at what we've done in terms of making sure that -- before we even passed health care, 4 million kids got health insurance that didn't have it before, through the Children's Health Insurance Program. [cheers and applause] Expanded national service more than at any time since the beginning of the Peace Corps, made sure that credit card companies couldn't jack up your rates without notice.

Over and over again, we have moved forward an agenda that is making a difference in people's lives each and every day. Now, is it enough? No. And so I expect, and I think most Democrats out there expect, that people want to see more progress.


THE PRESIDENT: But certainly in terms of the folks who voted for me, my expectation and hope is, if you look at the track record that we've accomplished in very difficult circumstances over the last 18 months, we have done an awful lot that we talked about during the campaign, and we're going to do more in the years to come.

STEWART: Well, that's what we'll do, we're going to take a commercial break and we're going to come back and talk a little bit about how that progress will be or what the process was like; we'll be back with President Barack Obama.

[cheers and applause]

[cheers and applause]

STEWART: We're back. We're here with President Barack Obama.

So let's talk about -- you know, you were talking about a list of accomplishments that you feel very proud of that the Democratic Party -- you know, they don't seem to be running on the list of accomplishments. If anything, you know, I saw a commercial of a guy in West Virginia running for Senate, Manchin, who -- he took a rifle --

THE PRESIDENT: He shot the thing. [laughs]

STEWART: -- and he shot the cap and trade bill. And I thought, oh, gosh, the Republicans are so -- oh, that's a Democrat? Oh, that's interesting. [laughter]

Have you convinced your own party that the legislative progress has been enough, and how do you feel about their reaction to it?

THE PRESIDENT: Look, let me say this about members of Congress.

STEWART: Are you going to curse?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I'm not going to curse. [laughter] I know a lot of folks feel frustrated about Congress, how it operates, the bickering, the weird rules, the filibusters, all that stuff. But the fact is that there are a bunch of folks who, during the course of this year, took really tough votes that they knew were bad politics because they thought they were the right things to do. [cheers and applause] There were a whole bunch of Democrats -- guys like Tom Perriello in Virginia, or John Boccieri in Ohio, or Betsy Markey in Colorado, who are basically in Republican districts. You know, they won in the big surge that we had in 2008, they knew it was going to be a tough battle, that these are generally pretty conservative districts, and yet still went ahead and did what they thought was right.

And my hope in this election is that people who vote on the basis of what they think is right and have integrity and aren't just thinking about the next election but are thinking about the next generation, that they are rewarded. Now, that's tough in this political process, because you've got millions of dollars of independent money that's pouring into those races, they are being hammered by negative ads every single day.

And the question then becomes, do the millions of voices who came out in 2008, who said folks were interested in fixing our health-care system, wanted a serious energy policy, wanted the kinds of changes in our student loan program that have allowed millions more kids to have access to college -- that's what we ran on, that's what we've delivered -- and my hope is that those people are rewarded for taking those tough votes. And if they are, then I think Democrats will do fine on Election Day.

STEWART: Is the difficulty that you have here the distance between what you ran on and what you delivered? Is that -- you ran with such, if I may, audacity, you know -- [laughter] -- so much of what you said was, great leaders lead in a time of opportunity, we're the ones we're looking for, yet legislatively it has felt timid at times. I'm not even sure at times what you want out of a health-care bill.

THE PRESIDENT: And this is -- Jon, I love your show, but --

STEWART: Very kind of you. [laughter]

THE PRESIDENT: -- but this is something where, you know, I have a profound disagreement with you. And I don't want to lump you in with a lot of other pundits -- but --

STEWART: You may. [laughter]

THE PRESIDENT: -- no, no -- look, this notion that health care was "timid," you've got 30 million people who are going to get health insurance as a consequence of this.


THE PRESIDENT: You've got a patient's bill of rights that makes sure that insurance companies can't drop you when you get sick, if you've been paying premiums, that makes sure there aren't lifetime limits, makes sure kids who don't have health insurance can stay on their parents' insurance until they're 26, and cuts the deficit by over $1 trillion. This is what I think most people would say is as significant a piece of legislation as we've seen in this country's history.

And the notion that -- [cheers and applause] -- but what happens is -- what happens is, it gets discounted because the presumption is, well, we didn't get 100 percent of what we wanted, we got 90 percent of what we wanted, so let's focus on the 10 percent we didn't get as opposed to the 90 percent that we did. And right now there is a woman in New Hampshire who doesn't have to sell her house to get her cancer treatments because of that health-care bill. [cheers and applause] And she doesn't think it's inconsequential. She doesn't think it's "timid."

STEWART: The suggestion was not that it's inconsequential or that it doesn't help --

THE PRESIDENT: The suggestion was that it was "timid."

STEWART: Timid. [laughter]

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, that was --

STEWART: And I'll tell you what I mean, and I don't mean to lump you in with other presidents. [cheers and applause] But I think if I were to try and coalesce, I think, whatever criticism of it may be, it's that you ran on the idea that this system needed basic reform --


STEWART: It feels like some of the reforms that have passed, like health care, have been done in a very political manner that has papered over a foundation that is corrupt. And I thought that --

THE PRESIDENT: That I think is fair, which is -- here's what I think is fair. That, over the last two years, in an emergency situation --


THE PRESIDENT: -- our basic attitude was, we've gotta get some things done, in some cases quickly, that are -- in order to do that, basically worked with the process as opposed to transformed the process. And there's no doubt that that frustrated folks. It frustrates me.

Look, I would love not to have a 60-vote requirement, which is not in the Constitution, but is in the Senate rules right now, that apply to everything we do, so I can't get a deputy secretary of Treasury in the middle of a financial crisis because somebody's holding it up and is filibustering the appointment. So there are all kinds of things that happened during the course of these two years in terms of process that I'd like to see changed.

Keep in mind that those areas where we had control over process, we actually made changes. So you know, we've got a whole bunch of rules about lobbyists interacting with the White House that are very different from any White House before. If somebody wants to come to visit the White House now, that list is given out to everybody. That's a change, but --

STEWART: Did you just invite me to the White House? [laughter]

THE PRESIDENT: No, no. Because we'd have to disclose it and I don't think you would actually --

STEWART: Right. You don't want people knowing that I was over there.

THE PRESIDENT: Exactly. [laughter]

STEWART: Let me explain more specifically, because I think that's, you know -- to say "within the system/without the system," you know, in the health-care bill --


STEWART: -- you worked within the system. You know, during the campaign there was talk that we were going to be able to negotiate prices with Canadian pharmaceutical companies.


STEWART: A deal was made with them, $80 billion over 10 years; okay, that seems like a quid pro quo, that seemed reasonable, but there's other things with the insurance companies. You know, I was talking with a woman in the audience before the show -- [cheers] -- and she brought up an interesting point. You know, 2014 is when these exchanges kick in and there will be some sort of price controls, but up until that point there's really nothing in this bill that doesn't allow these insurance companies to raise rates.

THE PRESIDENT: Not true. In fact, what we have done is we have empowered state insurance commissioners to review the rate hikes that are taking place in states. In some states, like North Carolina, they've already used it and rolled back premium increases by 25 percent.

STEWART: Doesn't that only trip, though, on egregious raises, like 30 -- don't they know, like, if you raise it 30 percent, so they raise it 29? You know, is that --

THE PRESIDENT: If -- if -- if the point, Jon, is that overnight we did not transform the health-care system, that point is true.

STEWART: [laughs] Well, when you put it that way, it seems so petty! [applause]

THE PRESIDENT: When I say that -- when we promised during the campaign, change you can believe in, it wasn't, change you can believe in in 18 months. It was, change you can believe in, but you know what, we're going to have to work for it. [cheers and applause] And the history of this country --

STEWART: Yeah --

THE PRESIDENT: Let me make this point, because I think it's really important. Look, when Social Security was passed, it applied to widows and orphans, and it was a very restricted program. And over time, that structure that was built ended up developing into the most important social safety net that we have in our country.

The same is true on every piece of progressive legislation, every bit of progress that we've made. When the Civil Rights Act passed, there were still a bunch of folks down South who couldn't vote. And you know, I'm sure there were a bunch of commentators out there who said, you know what, this law's not doing the job, there's still folks who aren't able to exercise their franchise. But the point was that we had created a structure, we had put a framework in place, that allowed us then to continue to make progress.

That's what we've done over the last 18 months. That's what I expect we're going to keep on doing as long as I've got the capacity to do it, as long as I'm president of the United States.

STEWART: All right, sir. We're going to take a commercial break and come back with more President Barack Obama.

[commercial break]

STEWART: Welcome back to the show President Barack Obama. [cheers and applause]

You expressed some frustration with those on the left that are still feeling dissatisfied. Do you think in any way the expectation was something that maybe even you and your campaign created? Were people being naive, in the sense of -- I remember very clearly you said, you know, we can't expect different results with the same people.


STEWART: And I remember when you hired Larry Summers -- [laughter] -- I remember thinking, well, that seems like the exact same person -- [laughter and applause] --

THE PRESIDENT: No, no, no --

STEWART: -- and why would you -- so in some respects, I get your frustration with this idea that, well, jeez, are you never satisfied? But again, the expectation, I think, was audacity, going in there and really rooting out a corrupt system.

And so the sense is, has reality of what hit you in the face when you first stepped in, caused you to back down from some of the more visionary -- like bringing in a guy like Larry Summers, like --

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, if you look at how we have handled this financial crisis --


THE PRESIDENT: -- if you had told me two years ago that we're going to be able to stabilize the system, stabilize the stock market, stabilize the economy, and, by the way, at the end of this thing, it'll cost less than 1 percent of GDP where the S&L crisis cost us 2.5 percent of our entire economy for a much smaller crisis, I'd say, we'll take that, because we saved taxpayers -- [applause] -- a whole lot of money.

And in fairness, Larry Summers did a heckuva job trying to figure out how to --

STEWART: You don't want to use that phrase, dude. [laughs]

THE PRESIDENT: Pun intended.

STEWART: All right. [laughter]

THE PRESIDENT: You know, Larry was integral in helping to think through some really complicated stuff.

Now, you know, the notion is, I think, that somehow managing a crisis of this magnitude is a matter of black-and-white and you've got some clear decisions that you can make and here's how you can do it and you shut down these banks and push this stuff aside, and somehow it's all going to be right. It turns out that, at every juncture where we're making decisions, we've got to make some calculations. If you shut down this bank, does that mean that you're going to have a cascade of 100 other banks that are going to be shut down? Does that mean that taxpayers suddenly have to pay for all that? Is that going to cost more taxpayer money?

So a lot of the debates that were taking place in terms of financial regulatory reform, in terms of how to stabilize the financial system, were ones that required some expertise --


THE PRESIDENT: -- and Larry helped to provide that.

Now, having said that --

STEWART: Yeah. [laughter]

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate you being polite.

STEWART: It's just really hard not to talk! [laughter]


STEWART: Can I ask just one thing? If they had told you the same thing, stabilize the banks, stabilize the Dow, unemployment will be near 10 percent, would you have taken that deal?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, if I had the capacity to have prevented the unemployment that happened, basically before we put our economic plan into place, obviously, we would've done that. But the problem was, we lost 4 million jobs before I was sworn in, 750,000 jobs the month I was sworn in, 600,000 the month after that, 600,000 the month after that. So most of the jobs that we lost were lost before the economic policies we put into place had any effect. [cheers and applause]

And the -- but I want to go back to your earlier point, which is this notion that, you know, folks, I think, hoped that we could completely transform Washington. I understand that impulse. There are some very good people here, some good public servants who work very hard. There are some folks who aren't so good, and the culture here is not always real healthy, and we're going to have to -- [laughter and applause] -- people chuckle here, yeah -- and so bringing about change in terms of how the legislative process operates, in terms of the power that lobbyists have, the power the special interests have, you know, that is a work in progress. It's just not going to happen overnight.

But I don't regret, during the campaign, having said that we can change that process, we can make it more transparent. It's not going to be ideal. We can reduce the power of special interests, although special interests are still going to have power in a democracy. They're going to be able to petition their government, like everybody else, and they've got a lot of lobbyists and a lot of the cash to do it, but we can limit the amount of power that [we] have.

We can make sure that as a White House we are more open than previous White Houses. You know, there are folks, I'm sure, who don't think that we've achieved the ideal. And so I guess on all these issues, my attitude is, if we're making progress step-by-step, inch- by-inch, day-by-day, that we are being true to the spirit of that campaign --

STEWART: So you wouldn't say you'd run this time as a pragmatist? You would not -- it wouldn't be, yes, we can -- given certain conditions and -- [laughter] --

THE PRESIDENT: No. No, I think what I would say is, yes, we can, but -- [laughter] -- it is not -- it is not going to happen overnight.

STEWART: Do you believe government is nimble enough to handle these 21st-century crises? Is government agile enough? You know, you said, we want to build a 21st-century regulatory regime for business. By the time government builds that, obviously it'll be the 22nd century. [laughter] But won't they have already started trading molecules in some sort of weird -- you know, does government still have the ability to be agile enough to handle these types of things?

THE PRESIDENT: I think it's a legitimate question. I will tell you that there are a couple of things that have changed in our politics that are going to have to be fixed. One is the way the filibuster operates. As I said, that's just not in the Constitution. [applause]

In fairness, Democrats used it when Bush was in office and felt very comfortable using it, although not to the extent that it's being used today. What we've been seeing is unprecedented. And that makes it very difficult for us to move forward in serious ways, and actually reduces compromise, because what ends up happening is that if Republicans know that they can block anything because we don't have 60 votes, then they feel no need to compromise.

That means the Democrats, then their attitude is, well, we're not going to compromise; we can't get 60 votes, and everybody moves in opposite directions.

The same thing is true, I think, when it comes to how our districts are drawn. You know, we've got a lot of districts these days that are so safe -- 90 percent Democrat or 90 percent Republican -- that that also helps to polarize the electorate, so there are a couple of things that are structural that are probably going to need to be changed.

But having said all that, we have made a lot of progress over the last 18 months that, from a historical perspective, you know, ranks up there with any legislative session we've seen in history. And we're going to have to continue to make some progress on things like energy, which didn't get done, on immigration reform, that did not get done. And most importantly we've just got to do a lot more work in terms of generating the kind of jobs that ensure we've got a growing middle class and that people are able to live out the American dream, because right now I think there are a lot of folks who are worried that if we don't make serious investments in education, in energy, in infrastructure, in research and development, that we're going to start falling behind. [applause]

STEWART: Well, I thank you for being here, for taking the time. I know you're a very busy man, you've got lots to do.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Jon, I appreciate this. You know, the one other thing that might have made a difference is if you had held the Rally to Restore Sanity two years ago. [laughter] That might have -- [cheers and applause] --

STEWART: I didn't know you could do that.

THE PRESIDENT: That might have made a difference, but I enjoyed it. Can I just make a plug, just to vote. [cheers and applause] Make sure that folks out there --

STEWART: I didn't know where you were going with that. When you said, can I just make a plug, I was like, are you dropping an album? What's happening here? [laughter]

THE PRESIDENT: Go out there and vote November 2nd. A lot of you have early voting in your states; make sure to make use of it.

STEWART: Thank you, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.

Barack Obama, Interview with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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