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"Yes we can, but..."

By Jamelle Bouie, Special to CNN
  • Jamelle Bouie says Obama's "Daily Show" turn reflected back and forth between him and left
  • He says Stewart pushed him on "timid" agenda; Obama extolled health care reform
  • Bouie: Whether liberal base likes it or not, change Obama's trying for takes time
  • Bouie: Whatever help Obama brought, Democratic candidates face voters worried about jobs

Editor's note: Jamelle Bouie is a writing fellow for the liberal-leaning The American Prospect magazine in Washington. He writes for TAP's website and blog. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Being president is a lot harder than it looks. Or at least, that was the main takeaway from President Obama's appearance on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Wednesday night.

But in a lot of ways, the encounter also looked exactly like the ongoing back and forth between the White House and the "professional left" over who is responsible for the president's unpopularity and his inability to rally Democrats to the cause. And like that conversation, this one needed a little more perspective and a better sense of the political world.

For most of the half-hour show, Obama defended his record and methods to Stewart and the 3.6 million viewers -- many of them potential voters in Tuesday's midterm elections. But instead of a campaign event, this episode was largely a substantive discussion of the health care bill, as well as the institutional obstacles to progressive legislation in the Senate.

He may have been there to get his base off the dime, but for the most part, "please vote" -- to borrow a Bidenism -- appeared to be the last thing on the president's mind.

Video: President Obama's plea for support
Video: What's Jon Stewart's agenda?
Video: Hey dude, it's 'Mr. President'
Video: Obama drops by 'The Daily Show'

Part of this, undoubtedly, is because Stewart wasn't particularly easy on him. Stewart has been called a representative for liberals and young people, and although that's not always true, it was certainly in evidence last night.

After the customary greetings and jokes, Stewart quickly moved to pressing Obama on the distance between his campaign rhetoric, "hope and change," and his actions as president.

"The expectation, I think, was audacity," he said. "Going in there and really rooting out a corrupt system."

His frustration may be channeling that of the liberals and young people who seem to have turned their backs on the Obama administration, expressing apathy in recent polls and a reluctance to vote.

Said Stewart: "You ran with such, if I may, audacity. ... Legislatively, it has felt timid at times. I'm not even sure at times what you want out of a health care bill."

This was Obama's opportunity to both defend the Affordable Care Act and push back. He criticized the (liberal) naysayers, people who solely "focus on the 10 percent" they didn't get, and made his case for why the bill is worth praising, not trashing.

"This notion that health care was timid, you've got 30 million people who are going to get health care as a consequence of this. ... This is what -- I think most people would say -- is as significant a piece of legislation as we've seen in this country."

He included in that defense a broader message: "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."

Obama's point was that these things take time, and in a polarized atmosphere where every movement must be a decisive one and where the minority can block an agenda with procedural rules, compromises -- like it or not, liberals -- are necessary.

The problem for Obama, unfortunately, is that "good enough," "wait" and "Congress" aren't very compelling messages from a president, however much liberals should really be focusing their ire on the filibuster and other congressional impediments. The past two years have been very demoralizing for the Democratic base, and as Stewart noted during the interview, liberals need a little more encouragement and confidence before committing to Obama and the Democratic Party for a second time.

Put another way, "Yes We Can" is a timeless slogan. "Yes We Can, But" -- a phrase that made its way into Obama's comments -- sounds like an excuse. And if Obama's goal last night was to provide that encouragement and confidence, I'm not sure he succeeded.

On the other hand, Obama's appearance on "The Daily Show" will only serve to heighten media and popular interest in Stewart's upcoming Rally to Restore Sanity. He is the nation's most popular media critic for a reason, and this segment is sure to stoke interest in Saturday's event.

Of course, amidst all of this, we shouldn't forget that Obama's rhetoric is a little ancillary to the Democratic Party's performance in the elections next week.

Stewart and Obama touched glancingly on this hugely significant reality for Democratic candidates: Their main problem is that economic growth is low and unemployment is high. It's a little unreasonable to expect happiness with the incumbent party no matter how you voted last time. Likewise, with unemployment at even higher rates among the core members of the Democratic base -- African-Americans, Latinos and young people -- it's no surprise that those groups may be hard to persuade.

The reality is that the president's party will always lose seats in the midterm, a fact that counts double when unemployment is high and the economy is slow.

For all the criticism -- and praise -- of Obama, the truth is that the election is out of his hands and has been for a long time.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jamelle Bouie.