President Barack Obama poked fun at the press, his political rivals and his own healthcare policy on Saturday night, as he spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
The event, held each year in Washington DC, brings together politicians, newsmakers and a selection of screen and sporting stars ostensibly to honour the year’s finest journalism – though many see it merely as an opportunity for schmoozing.
For President Obama, it offers a chance to show off his impeccable comic timing, and he began by acknowledging that he had had a “rough” 12 months. Referring to the botched roll-out of Healthcare.gov, the web portal where Americans were directed to sign up for the new Obamacare medical insurance plans, he said: “In 2008 my slogan was ‘Yes we can!’; in 2013 my slogan was ‘Control+Alt+Delete’.”
This was the first time that the dinner had been broadcast live on CNN, and the news network was another target – specifically, its round-the-clock coverage of the hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines jetliner. “I am happy to be here, even though I am a little jet-lagged from my trip to Malaysia,” the President said, of his recent official visit to Asia. “The lengths we have to go to get CNN coverage these days!”
Joking about the so-called “birther” theory – that he was born in Africa, and therefore ineligible for the presidency – Mr Obama noted, “Just last month, an American won the Boston marathon for the first time in 30 years, which was inspiring and only fair since a Kenyan has been President for the last six.” Later, addressing the contingent from the Fox News network, he said: “Let’s face it Fox, you’ll miss me when I’m gone – it’ll be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.”
While some comments might have been bad publicity for the news networks, HBO received some free advertising when Mr Obama showed a picture of himself sitting in the Oval Office in a new chair: the Iron Throne from HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The White House Correspondents’ Association is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the first dinner was held in 1920. Its celebrity guest list grew significantly during the Clinton presidency, and this year the Hollywood stars included Robert De Niro, Lupita Nyong’o and Sofia Vergara. The dinner also drew big names from Silicon Valley, including Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who attended with stars of his firm’s DC-based drama House of Cards.
The event, known to some in Washington as “nerd prom”, has been criticised for encouraging uncomfortably cosy relations between journalists and the politicians.
Each year the event features a comedian, invited to toast and roast the other guests. This year the job fell to Joel McHale, star of the sitcom Community, whose jokes drew a mixture of laughs and grimaces. He began by saying his speech would be “amusing and over quickly – just like Chris Christie’s presidential bid”.
Like President Obama, Mr McHale made fun of the bungled Obamacare roll-out. “The launch of Healthcare.gov was a disaster. It was so bad,” he said. “I don’t even have an analogy because the website is now the thing people use to describe other bad things. They say things like, ‘I shouldn’t have eaten that sushi, because I was up all night HealthCare.gov-ing’… ‘Boy, that latest Johnny Depp movie really Healthcare.gov’d at the box office’.”
Concluding his own address, Mr Obama cued a video thanking the Correspondents’ Association, but the projector appeared to freeze, prompting the President to ask: “Does anybody know how to fix this?” Kathleen Sebelius, the former Health Secretary, who recently fell on her sword after bearing the brunt of the criticism over the Healthcare.gov debacle, rushed onstage with a laptop. “I got this,” she said. “I see it all the time.”