Obama 'nerd prom' jokes: Did he go too far?

At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend, President Obama went after every subgroup gathered in the giant ballroom – as well as Mitt Romney.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Obama attends the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Saturday, April 28, in Washington.

President Obama’s jokes were pretty pointed at Washington’s “nerd prom” – the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – over the weekend. He went after every subgroup gathered in the giant Hilton ballroom, with the possible exception of rehab-prone starlets.

Journalists? Check. “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is known as the prom of Washington, D.C. – a term coined by political reporters who clearly never had the chance to go to an actual prom,” Mr. Obama said.

Congress? Double check. “I want to especially thank all the members who took a break from their exhausting schedule of not passing any laws to be here tonight,” joked the president.

Mitt Romney? Send him the check! Obama tripled down on remarks that skewered his presumptive fall opponent. Such as when he said, "Recently, [Mr. Romney’s] campaign criticized me for slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. In fact, I understand Governor Romney was so incensed he asked his staff if he could get some equal time on ‘The Merv Griffin Show.' ”

Hmm. Did Obama go too far? We’d say that if nothing else, Obama’s humor was edgier than that of past presidential performances. For instance, he referred to the recent flaplet over the fact that when young, he was served dog in Indonesia. (“As my stepfather always told me, ‘It’s a boy-eat-dog world out there.' ”) He waved Republicans' talking points back in their faces. (“I have not seen ‘The Hunger Games.' Not enough class warfare for me.”) He even sort of made an I’m-looking-at-you gesture toward the Supreme Court. (“In my first term, we passed health-care reform. In my second term, I guess I’ll pass it again.”)

Not everyone approved. At one point over the weekend, the Drudge Report led its home page with the headline, “Barack bizarre: President jokes about eating dogs?”

But we’ll agree with The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza on this one: What Obama did was what presidents usually do with such appearances, which is to appeal to their committed voters. Only partisans follow this kind of thing closely, and Democratic partisans will chortle at Obama’s humor. Partisan Republicans wouldn’t have approved of it under virtually any circumstances.

“What these presidential speeches tend to do is affirm the already deeply-held feelings of each party’s base,” wrote Mr. Cillizza on his blog The Fix on Monday.

We’ll add this: If you combine Obama’s performance with other campaign-related events of the week, Democrats are sending the Romney campaign a message. That message is, “We’re not Rick Santorum.”

In other words, Obama’s reelection effort is not going to sit there and let the Romney team pour money into negative advertising that defines the president in the way Republicans would prefer. Obama is going to hit preemptively and hard, and he is going to walk right up to the line of propriety, and maybe past it, when it comes to campaigning.

After all, in recent days the Obama reelection team has questioned whether Romney would have ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Politics ain’t beanbag, as pundits like to say on cable news. (What is beanbag? How do you play it? We have no idea, and we bet they don’t either.)

In that context, a little humor about Romney (“It’s great to be here this evening in the vast, magnificent Hilton ballroom – or what Mitt Romney would call ‘a little fixer-upper’ ”) may be just a foretaste of the dialogue to come.

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