The controversy over President Obama’s Correspondents’ Dinner speech is ridiculous

Following President Obama’s annual speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night, a strain of analysis/criticism emerged that cast the president as vengeful and/or angry during the address.

“Now, in his second term, Obama is finally free to air his resentments,”conservative columnist Byron York wrote in the Washington Examiner. John Hinderaker, writing on the Powerline blog, concluded that “this year’s event was perhaps notable because it exposed our president’s bitterness, as he approaches the end of his term. Humor is often revealing.”

At issue for both men was the fact that Obama used Keegan-Michael Key, one half of the “Key and Peele” comedy duo, as his “anger translator.” The idea of the bit was that Obama offered some milquetoast rhetoric while Key said what Obama really meant — pointed jabs about climate change,  Fox News Channel and the BP oil spill, among others.


But, he showed those emotions WHILE DOING A COMEDY ROUTINE. I can’t overemphasize that point enough. His speech was designed to be funny — like every speech ever given by a politician at this event. Obama also made lots of jokes about the idea that he is arrogant and aloof. Should we write stories with headlines blaring: “Obama acknowledges his arrogance — finally!”?

The answer is, of course, no. That’s because he is giving a humorous speech, not a serious policy address on race. (For a serious policy speech on race, watch Obama’s address on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches in Selma, Ala.) Humor, at its best, tends to be topical. And, whether you like it or not, race and policing is a very topical, um, topic at the moment. “Saturday Night Live’s” Cecily Strong made a bunch of racial jokes of her own in the speech that followed Obama’s including calling the Secret Service “the only law enforcement agency in the country that would get in trouble for a black man getting shot.”

In short: We should, sometimes (okay, a lot of the time), take ourselves a little less seriously. Obama’s goal on Saturday night seemed to be to make people laugh. Which was the point, after all.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

That — plus Obama’s joke that “I have something that rhymes with ‘bucket list’ ” (get it!?) — amounted to confirmation in some circles that Obama was, finally, showing his true colors as someone who puts race front and center, is embittered by his time in office and is — gasp! — crass.

Here’s the thing: I agree that Obama is probably more annoyed with the political circumstances he has encountered than he lets on publicly. And, yes, he probably swears in private! Those two facts make him exactly like every president — hell, every politician — that has ever existed. Part of politics — if you are good at it — is suppressing your frustrations, your anger and, yes, occasionally, your bitterness. If you don’t think George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were more annoyed and profane in private than they were in public, then I have a print newspaper industry to sell you. Also,Richard Nixon.

The harder nut to crack is the criticism about Obama’s racial identity that the speech raised. There is very little question that Obama — particularly in the 2008 campaign — played down talking much about the historic nature of his candidacy as the first African American to be a major party’s presidential nominee. The times that he did talk about race were, usually, when he was forced to — with the most prominent example being hisspeech about his relationship with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (It also happened to be one of his best speeches.)

During his time as president, Obama has struggled to deal with race effectively. He misplayed an incident involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a move that led to the horrendous “Beer Summit.” Obama also has been repeatedly criticized by some in the black community for what it viewed as his lack of vocal support after recent high-profile killings of African Americans at the hands of the police.

Wrote WaPo’s Steve Mufson in a piece earlier this year tackling how Obama has approached race: “His central tenets: Don’t give in to anger and violence; work to improve, not destroy, the legal system; and accept that change will come and things are getting better, albeit more slowly than many would like.”

The takeaway? Obama always has been very careful when talking about race. Always. So, no, Obama has never shown the “anger” and “bitterness” about race that he showed Saturday night.

But, he showed those emotions WHILE DOING A COMEDY ROUTINE. I can’t overemphasize that point enough. His speech was designed to be funny — like every speech ever given by a politician at this event. Obama also made lots of jokes about the idea that he is arrogant and aloof. Should we write stories with headlines blaring: “Obama acknowledges his arrogance — finally!”?

The answer is, of course, no.  That’s because he is giving a humorous speech, not a serious policy address on race. (For a serious policy speech on race, watch Obama’s address on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches in Selma, Ala.) Humor, at its best, tends to be topical. And, whether you like it or not, race and policing is a very topical, um, topic at the moment. “Saturday Night Live’s” Cecily Strong made a bunch of racial jokes of her own in the speech that followed Obama’s including calling the Secret Service “the only law enforcement agency in the country that would get in trouble for a black man getting shot.”

In short: We should, sometimes (okay, a lot of the time), take ourselves a little less seriously. Obama’s goal on Saturday night seemed to be to make people laugh. Which was the point, after all.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here