WASHINGTON, D.C. - With Congress continuing unprecedented levels of bitter partisan debate and the 2012 presidential campaign in full swing, President Obama struck back Saturday night at a town consumed by politics with a light-hearted roast of his critics and own administration.
To all the Congress "members who took a break from their exhausting schedule of not passing any laws to be here tonight," he said. "Let's give them a big round of applause."
Officially, it's the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner. Unofficially: The Oscars of the East Coast, nerd prom, and a host of other offbeat labels for the huge gathering of journalists, politicians, and pop culture celebrities to hit the nation's capital each spring. It's a time for Washington elite to hobnob with Hollywood stars and, traditionally, for presidents to respond to contemporary issues with a little humor.
As the crowd waited for the president's address, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney opened the act by asking the audio techs to turn off his boss's microphone, a play on leaders' renowned tendency for gaffes around recording devices.
"I have the nuclear codes," Obama could be heard from behind a curtain. "Why am I telling knock-knock jokes to Kim Kardashian? Why is she famous anyway?"
Obama's "hot mic" opined to send Vice President Biden instead next year.
The president began by reflecting briefly on last year's gala; an evening when, unbeknownst to the public, the commander in chief had just given the order to put down "one of the world's most notorious individuals." Not Osama bin Laden, but Donald Trump.
And Obama delved quickly into his more immediate critics:
"It's great to be here this evening in the vast, magnificent Hilton ballroom," Obama told the audience. "Or what Mitt Romney would call a little fixer-upper."
Recognizing it was going to be a tough campaign in the fall, the president digressed that he actually had a lot in common with the Republican candidate.
"We both think of our wives as our better halves, and polls show, to a alarmingly insulting extent, the American people agree," he said.
Both Romney and Obama pursued college degrees from Harvard. "I have one, he has two. What a snob."
Even Dog-gate was not off the table, with the president showing a satirical Romney attack-ad against First Pooch Bo Obama. Could American dogs afford four more years of Obama? "For them, that's 28 years."
"That's pretty rough, but I can take it," he responded. "My stepfather always told me, 'It's a boy-eat-dog world out there.'"
Romney was not present for the riff, although Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were in attendance. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and a motley crew of lawmakers were also in the audience.
Obama did take a more serious tone toward the end of his remarks, thanking the assembled journalists for their work and recognizing the sacrifices of reporters Anthony Shadid of the New York Times and Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London, who died "to shine a light on some of the most important stories of our time." Each lost their lives covering the conflict in Syria. Obama told the correspondents he never forgets the dependence of freedom on an open press.
Before departing, he said he needed to get the Secret Service back in time for their new curfew.
Late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel followed up the president, continuing the same tropes.
"I do have a lot of jokes about the Secret Service," Kimmel said. "You know I told them for $800 I wouldn't tell them but they only offered $30."
The comedian told Obama that even Democrats were upset with his performance, asking their party leader to stick to his guns.
"If you don't have any guns they would like to see you ask Eric Holder to get some for you," he said.
Kimmel told the audience ABC News' Jake Tapper had written his lamest punchlines, but asked if the Fox News table wasn't laughing because Rupert Murdoch had already hacked his jokes.
Several journalists were presented awards for their coverage of the executive branch. A team from Politico was recognized for their analysis of the negotiations to raise the U.S. debt ceiling; and Associated Press journalists for their series on the New York Police Department's surveillance program of minority communities under CIA guidance. The AP has also won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation.
In the broadcast category ABC's Tapper was awarded for his scoop that Standard and Poor's would downgrade of the U.S. credit rating over Washington gridlock. It is Tapper's third consecutive year to be honored at the event.
Proceeds from the lavish dinner are divided among the awards and scholarships for journalism students, also given out that evening. But the president said between the tuxedos, gowns, and fine wine, he was just happy it wasn't a GSA conference.