WASHINGTON — President Obama slipped into the role of comedian-in-chief Saturday night and took jabs at journalists, lawmakers, celebrities and — most pointedly — his own administration’s botched rollout of HealthCare.gov.
Remarks that would have otherwise put him in hot water drew applause at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner from an audience comprising some of the most famous faces in politics, entertainment and sports. The dinner is known in Washington circles as “nerd prom.”
“Of course, we rolled out HealthCare.gov,” Obama said of his tough year in 2013. “That could have gone better.”
“In 2008, my slogan was ‘Yes we can.’ In 2013, my slogan was control-alt-delete,” Obama said.
A poster for Walt Disney’s animated hit “Frozen” flashed onto the large video screens in the ballroom, to which the president quipped that the launch of the online enrollment portal of Obamacare had been turned into one of the year’s biggest movies.
After tickling funny bones with 20 minutes worth of jokes, Obama returned to the troubled rollout.
The president said he’d prepared a separate, short video thanking the White House Correspondents’ Association for all their hard work as the organization celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2014.
When the video choked and froze, Obama called out for help. “Does anybody know how to fix this?”
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was bitterly criticized over the HealthCare.gov botch, rushed up to join Obama onstage.
“I got this. I see it all the time,” Sebelius said, as she appeared to set a small laptop down on the podium. Sebelius punched in a few keystrokes in dramatic fashion, and Obama’s video began to play as originally intended.
Comedian and actor Joel McHale, who spoke after Obama as the evening’s entertainment, also targeted the once-troubled Obamacare site.
“The launch of HealthCare.gov was a disaster. It was so bad,” McHale said, speaking directly to the President. “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.'”
The president and McHale also used fodder from current headlines for many of their best moments of the night. Here are some of the highlights.
Christie’s bridge troubles
After taking a jab at drawn out legislative battles with Washington lawmaker Ted Cruz, Obama joked that “gridlock has gotten so bad in this town, you have to wonder: What’d we do to piss off Chris Christie so bad?”
“Finally, a politician who is willing to stand up to America’s commuters,” McHale said of Christie, who chuckled along in the audience.
Obama sought to turn recent conservative criticism of his foreign policy on its head by pointing out past compliments Putin has received from Pat Buchanan and Rudy Giuliani. In a dig at conservative pundits, Obama said, “Mike Huckabee and Sean Hannity keep talking about Putin’s bare chest — which is kind of weird. Look it up. They talk about it a lot.”
McHale used the crisis in Ukraine to give Obama some foreign policy advice. “You have to show a guy like that you’re just as crazy as he is. He invades Crimea, you invade Cancun,” the comedian told the President.
Dousing the news media
Both men used the occasion to declare open season on the media, including CNN and its recent extensive coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Obama told the audience he was a little jet-lagged from his recent trip to Asia which included a stop in Malaysia. “The lengths we have to go to, to get CNN coverage these days,” the President said, adding, “I think they’re still searching for their table.”
McHale was no kinder. After remarking that the White House Correspondents’ Association celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, McHale joked, “100 years ago, CNN was only searching for the Wright brothers’ plane.”
Obama also took a shot at MSNBC’s ratings in the large, full ballroom.
“MSNBC is here. They’re a little overwhelmed. They’ve never seen an audience this big before.”
As for Fox News, the President joked that the cable outlet was a front for the Koch brothers, a pair of billionaire industrialists known for their monetary contributions to conservative groups and causes.
“I’m just kidding,” Obama added, “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.”
Racial tightrope walk
Obama played on skin color while taking a stab at House Speaker John Boehner, who has antagonized Obama on many issues in the last few years and who has his own host of problems with the conservative members of the House Republican Caucus.
“These days the House Republicans actually give John Boehner a harder time than they give me — which means orange really is the new black,” Obama said making a simultaneous reference to the popular Netflix series and to Boehner’s legendary tan.
McHale walked the tightrope on race in a quip that is apt to draw some criticism when the sun comes up Sunday. The comedian is the host of “The Soup” on the E! Entertainment channel.
“E! is also home to the Kardashians, who believe it or not, are Republicans,” McHale said, “And I know that because they’re always trying to screw black people.”
The joke seemed to draw more smarting moans from the audience than laughs.
Some serious stuff
Although the night is typically a light-hearted affair full of jokes, food, and posing for photos, discussion of serious news intruded on the red carpet.
News legend Barbara Walters spoke to CNN about her exclusive interview with V. Stiviano, the woman at the center of the racial scandal that has embroiled L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
“I think she wanted to do it,” Walters told CNN when asked how she landed a sit-down with Stiviano, “I think she wanted to be heard. I think she feels there have been a lot of bad things said about her and this was her chance to show that she was intelligent.”
The annual event, which has attracted a substantial Hollywood contingent since Bill Clinton was President in the early 1990s, is taking place this year at a time when politically themed shows — ABC’s “Scandal,” HBO’s “Veep” and Netflix’s “House of Cards” — are prevalent in popular culture.
CNN Political Commentator Ben Ferguson summed up how the annual event seemed to upend pop culture’s normal pecking order.
“This is the only place where Wolf Blitzer can actually be the hot ticket for a Hollywood star. . . This is like revenge of every guy who ever went and studied hard in college,” Ferguson said. “In what world does this happen?”
As to whether partisanship gets stirred up, S.E. Cupp of CNN’s “Crossfire” said, “Actually, tonight we’ve decided to put politics aside, laugh at our own expense, rib each other, and just have a good night.”
“That’s what this is all about,” CNN Political Analyst John Avlon said of the rare truce between the hosts on the left and the right of program. “There’s so much humor in politics but you wouldn’t know it because people don’t laugh at it,” he said, “so it’s a good night for that.”
“This is Hollywood for ugly people,” Avlon added, using a familiar description Washingtonians often use to describe their city.
Also spotted on the red carpet by CNN before the dinner began: “Scandal’s” Tony Goldwyn, Scott Foley, Joe Morton, Bellamy Young and Dan Bucatinsky; Sens. Charles Schumer, D-New York, and John McCain, R-Arizona; Attorney General Eric Holder; Cynthia Nixon; Patrick Stewart; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Washington “fixer” Judy Smith; Tim Tebow; Frida Pinto; IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde; Katie Couric; Richard Marx and the Winklevoss twins. Also in attendance were CNN’s Jim Acosta, Michelle Kosinski, Dana Bash and Brianna Keilar.
The annual event is a fundraiser for “scholarships for aspiring journalists and awards recognizing excellence in the (journalism) profession,” according to the website of the White House Correspondents’ Association, the organization that sponsors the dinner.
The WHCA “works to maintain independent news media coverage of the president, advocating for access, handling logistics for pools of reporters who stay close to the president and those who travel with him, and providing scholarships to journalism students,” the website says. The annual dinner began in 1920.