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Jon Stewart, TV Scourge of America's Right, Turns His Satire Against Barack Obama

Daily Show host spearheads liberal discontent with the president's failure to deliver radical change

by Paul Harris in New York

Jon Stewart, the famously smart host of the satirical Daily Show and habitual scourge of rightwing Americans, has embraced a remarkable new role as one of the fiercest critics of President Barack Obama and someone who is spearheading a wave of liberal discontent with the Democratic party.

Barack Obama is greeted by Jon Stewart during an appearance on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, a year before the presidential election. (Photograph: Jason Decrow/AP) The turnaround is a remarkable one for a man whose show soared to national and international fame during the George W Bush era, on the back of incessant ridicule of Republican policies and personalities.

But over the past year Stewart, who was a notable supporter of Obama in the presidential election campaign of 2008, has taken an increasingly strident tone on a wide range of White House policies, from the war in Afghanistan to gay rights and the economy.

Last week Stewart twice took on Obama head-on in brutal attacks during his trademark monologues at the start of the Daily Show. On Wednesday night he lambasted the president and the Democrats for their lack of backbone when it came to standing up to Republicans. "We came, we saw, we sucked," Stewart mockingly quipped.

The outburst created waves and prompted the influential gossip website Gawker to describe the incident under the headline, "The night Jon Stewart turned on President Obama".

Stewart followed up the next night by mocking Obama's recent campaign appearances in people's backyards, as a way of attempting to reconnect with disaffected voters. "Sir, you're the leader of the free world, you've taken the presidency from Air Force One to backyard number two," he said.

Critics – many of them liberal fans of a man who combines comedy with biting political observation – believe Stewart is going too far. Danielle Belton, an influential culture and politics writer who runs the popular blog The Black Snob, said: "Jon Stewart made the mistake that a lot of liberals did when they got caught up in the romance of the 2008 campaign. People like Stewart want Obama to be an 'imaginary Obama' that they created in their head during the campaign."

Belton said Obama had always run as a moderate who would try to unite American politics, not carry out a difficult liberal agenda. She said that people like Stewart were just damaging the Democrats' cause. "People are taking their eyes off the larger issues here," she said.

But Stewart's anger is only the most high-profile expression of an increasingly widespread dissatisfaction among liberal Democrats with the achievements of the first 18 months of the Obama presidency. Though the White House touts its success in stabilising the economy and bringing in a version of healthcare reform, much of the Democratic base is unhappy at a perceived lack of ambition from a president in whom they had invested many hopes.

"Stewart is reflecting the disillusionment that many voters have for Obama. They elected him for certain reasons that have not exactly worked out for them," said Jack Lule, a journalism professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

To his liberal critics, Obama's healthcare plans were a pale imitation of what might have been. They argue that the White House has spent far too much time trying to appease Republicans with compromises and not enough on pleasing its own supporters with bold plans.

The result, they say, has been a catastrophic collapse in liberal support that promises to hurt the Democrats in November's mid-term elections. The Democrats are expected to lose control of one house of Congress, or perhaps even both, a blow that is likely to hamstring Obama's ambitions in the run-up to 2012's presidential election.

Polls for the mid-terms show the Republicans picking up Senate seats, congressional districts and state governorships across the board.

According to one on Friday, the number of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats had fallen to its lowest level in eight years. But, instead of mollifying liberal concerns, Obama and his vice-president, Joe Biden, have instead slammed their critics. "When I hear Democrats griping and groaning… I say, 'Folks, wake up!'," Obama said last month. Biden went further last week at a fundraiser in New Hampshire and told complaining liberals to "stop whining".

Such tactics are unlikely to impress Stewart or stop his attacks. In fact, the Daily Show host has been slamming Obama's policies for at least a year, growing ever more strident. He has been a vocal critic of a failure to act decisively on gay marriage and the "don't ask, don't tell" law that bars gays from serving openly in the military.

He has also been a critic of sending more troops to Afghanistan and of the president's tepid support for a planned Islamic centre near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

In a recent interview on Fox News, Stewart explained his disappointment with Obama. "He ran as a visionary, and he's led as a functionary," he told Fox talkshow host Bill O'Reilly. Obama had betrayed his "change" campaign mantra by keeping the "same system and the same people in place".

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