For Obama, last year’s correspondents’ dinner is tough to top

Whatever happens at Saturday evening’s White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner, it is a surefire bet that it will not reach the heights of drama scaled by last year’s event.

Only a handful of people, including President Obama, were aware of the drama at the time. As he delivered a jovial address to the annual gathering of press corps and celebrities, final preparations for the mission that would kill Osama bin Laden were already underway.

Even from a year’s distance, Obama’s performance seems remarkable to all but his most unrelenting critics. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The president cracked jokes at the expense of the Republicans who were then lining up to contest their party’s presidential nomination. He included the de rigeur self-deprecating gags, saying that some people thought he was arrogant but that he had “found a really great self-help tool for this: my poll numbers.” 

Through it all, he knew that an operation was gathering speed which, had it gone wrong, would have all but doomed his presidency.

Perhaps the most awkward moment for Obama came when comic Seth Myers included a bin Laden joke in his routine. “People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush,” he said, “but did you know that every day from 4 to 5 he hosts a show on C-SPAN?” 

The camera panned to Obama, whose broad smile cannot be seen, even in retrospect, to give the slightest hint of unease.

Twelve months on, supporters of the president still give an admiring, and semi-disbelieving, shake of the head about how Obama handled the strange confluence of events.

“It kinda redefined ‘cool, calm and collected,’ didn’t it?” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and a veteran of the Clinton administration.

Lehane asserted that Obama’s performance that night, and in the period immediately surrounding it, was important for deeper reasons too.

“I think those 24 or 48 hours in many ways became the defining moment of his presidency,” he told The Hill. “It definitively answered the questions that people always want to have answered about their presidents: Do they have what it takes? Are they up to the job? Can I trust them to make the right decision for our country in difficult circumstances?”

In the wake of bin Laden’s death, even the president’s usually-implacable domestic critics offered words of congratulations. Speaker John Boehner released a statement expressing his wish to “commend President Obama and his team.” Mitt Romney offered “congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and our president.”

Even though the “bin Laden bounce” that the president received in opinion polls dissipated quickly, Democrats hope that Obama will still benefit when voters go to the polls in November.

“The way the president performed — not just at the dinner but in those few days — is almost emblematic of how he has performed more generally,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “You look at that, at the economy, at the auto-industry bailout, at the fact that there were two wars going on — the president has been able to juggle all these things.”


In the aftermath of the killing, there were also some bipartisan hopes expressed that the nation’s political debates could turn to more substantive matters than had been the case in the immediate prelude.

Only days before, Obama had felt obliged to release a copy of his birth certificate in order to still the false accusations that he was born outside the United States. At the time, Donald Trump was at the fore in airing those innuendoes. Knowing what we now know about the bin Laden episode, Obama’s jibes at Trump during his address at the WHCA dinner take on a harder edge.

“We all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” Obama said, to laughter. He went on to cite a dilemma that had confronted Trump during a recent episode of the TV show “Celebrity Apprentice”:

“You, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership,” Obama said. “And so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir.”

Lehane said with a laugh that “to go within 24 hours from dealing with Donald Trump to dealing with Osama bin Laden — that shows quite a range in your skill-set!”

But the strategist also emphasized that “if you think about the arc of those few days, the president was dealing with some very petty, frivolous issues and to go from that to achieving something that no president had been able to achieve in almost ten years was pretty amazing.”

The bin Laden killing will become politicized as this election year progresses — not least by the president’s re-election team, who earlier this week released a web video suggesting that Romney would not have made the same call on the bin Laden mission.

In response, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said it was “sad to see the Obama campaign seek to use an event that unified our country to once again divide us.”

For all that, Democrats still believe there is only one winner anytime the subject comes up.

“The Republicans come at the president with this idea that he is weak, that he doesn’t show strong leadership, that he is an appeaser,” Thornell said. “Go ask al-Qaeda if he’s an appeaser."