Barack Obama famously disdains the kind of personal politicking that can build bipartisan coalitions for policy and budgets. He also has a tendency to ignore and shun the White House press corps for anything but lengthy lectures dressed up as press conferences. However, Politico’s Darren Samuelson reports that Obama has twice reached out personally to push his agenda … to Comedy Central’s now-retiring Daily Show host, Jon Stewart:
Jon Stewart slipped unnoticed into the White House in the midst of the October 2011 budget fight, summoned to an Oval Office coffee with President Barack Obama that he jokingly told his escort felt like being called into the principal’s office.
In February 2014, Obama again requested Stewart make the trip from Manhattan to the White House, this time for a mid-morning visit hours before the president would go before television cameras to warn Russia that “there will be costs” if it made any further military intervention in Ukraine.
To engage privately with the president in his inner sanctum at two sensitive moments — previously unreported meetings that are listed in the White House visitor logs and confirmed to POLITICO by three former Obama aides — speaks volumes about Stewart and his reach, which goes well beyond the million or so viewers who tune into The Daily Show on most weeknights.
It speaks volumes about both men, actually. And what it has to say isn’t necessarily all negative, or even mostly so.
First, it certainly provides Stewart with a feather in his cap. He might be the first television jester to have a President’s ear on policy. Give Stewart credit for his discretion, too; it would be easy to brag about this kind of access, but Stewart kept his mouth shut. On the other hand, one can also point out that that kind of access could arguably be expected to be disclosed in some way when Stewart commented on issues immediately after discussing them with Obama. That’s the clown-nose-on, clown-nose-off issue again with Daily Show and its clones — they want to be taken seriously as cultural drivers and news disseminators, but don’t want the responsibility for disclosing their biases or their slants. In this case, it’s a small nit to pick, but it’s there nonetheless.
It’d be easy to skewer Obama for this, but it’s actually a smart move on his part — and curiously a scant move, too. The overall arc of his reliance on deflecting to secondary media rather than tougher political media (a relative measure, to be sure) has proven it to be a wildly successful strategy. He gets friendly, even fawning coverage while avoiding the harder questions of the traditional press corps, which has kept his personal-qualities measures higher than they might have been otherwise. Keeping a culturally dominating media figure like Stewart in a personal relationship is a small investment with potentially large payoffs. Why not do it, as long as the rest of the media gives you a pass for it? Hey, even Nixon met with Elvis. I’m not sure this is any different — only more effective.
Samuelson frames this mostly as a valediction for Stewart, extolling his cultural impact in ways that seem hagiographic, although that’s de rigueur for these kinds of sendoffs and pretty benign. Most of the issues which he credits Stewart for winning involved a lot of people who did a lot more work than just tossing out eight-minute segments, with the exception of killing CNN’s original Crossfire, which Stewart undeniably accomplished single-handedly. But that doesn’t diminish Stewart’s cultural impact, nor the places where it led him, including to the Oval Office.