Yes, there were a few laughs between President Obama and Jon Stewart on Tuesday during a taping of “The Daily Show.” But the interview between two men whose tenures are coming to a close was mostly a meaty discussion on a range of issues, including the deal over Iran’s nuclear program and continuing problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Comedy Central host, whose last show is in two weeks, pressed Obama, in what he calls “the fourth quarter” of his presidency, over his record in implementing reforms at the VA, which was the center of controversy in 2014 over appointment delays for veterans. Whistle-blowers detailed steps some officials took to mask the problems.
“You’ll find almost unanimous agreement that you’ve failed,” Stewart said at one point.
Obama responded that he took seriously the “sacred duty” to care for service men and women after they return home, and said his administration has provided more resources to reduce the backlog of claims and address other problems.
He also defended the agency, and the government as a whole, for performing as best as could be expected given funding levels that he called insufficient.
“Government works better now than it ever has, given what we ask it to do,” he said. The difficulty is how to “systematically work through some of the challenges of a big, freaky bureaucracy.”
The interview came hours after the president addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Pittsburgh, where he insisted progress had been made.
Obama and Stewart also discussed the nuclear agreement with Iran, a subject the president also addressed at length in Pittsburgh. The president teased critics of the deal, who, he said, seemed to believe that “if you had brought Dick Cheney to the negotiations, everything would be fine.” By opting for a diplomatic resolution, Obama said, “we have taken off the table what would be a catastrophic problem if they got a weapon.”
The president said he wanted Americans to pay close attention to the coming debate over the accord, and to contact their representatives to express their views.
“If they are not hearing from citizens, then we end up making bad choices,” Obama said. “If people are engaged, eventually the political system responds.”
The substantive chat, with some occasional laugh lines, has been typical of the seven appearances Obama made on the Comedy Central show. In 2012, Stewart pressed the president about striking a balance between upholding American values and national security, as well as the still-fresh attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that claimed four American lives. In 2010, Obama was asked about the range of challenges facing the first-term president and his party just weeks before a midterm election wipeout.
Stewart noted Tuesday how loose the president seemed at this point in his presidency.
“Do you feel like, seven years in --” he began, before Obama interjected, “I know what I’m doing?”
“Yeah,” Stewart said. “You’re figuring this thing out.”
Obama said that as he looked ahead to the final months of his presidency he was satisfied to see that “a lot of the work that we did early on starts bearing fruit, late.”
“I’ve got 18 months,” Obama said, outlining remaining goals such as a major climate deal.
As they began the interview, the president joked that he couldn’t believe Stewart was retiring before he was.
“I’m going to issue an executive order: Jon Stewart cannot leave the show,” he said, joking, “It’s being challenged in the courts.”
“To me, this is a states’ rights issue,” Stewart responded.
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