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The joke was that Obama wasn’t joking

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The White House Correspondents' Dinner has become a strange event. It is, ostensibly, an evening when the president and the press can come together to share a few lighthearted laughs. But it's evolved into a recital of brutal truths — albeit one neither side ever really admits happened.

The joke of President Obama's performance on Saturday was that he wasn't joking. Everyone just had to pretend he was. Take this section, from the official White House transcript:

After the midterm elections, my advisors asked me, "Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?" And I said, "Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list.’" (Laughter and applause.)

Take executive action on immigration? Bucket. (Laughter.) New climate regulations? Bucket. It’s the right thing to do. (Laughter and applause.)

The tip-off there is, "It's the right thing to do." That's not a joke. That's Obama's actual justification for the aggressive executive actions of his second term — "fuck it, it's the right thing to do." But the norms of politics are such that he typically has to frame his actions as routine, dull, even necessary. He has to search for precedent and downplay the consequences.

It's only on the evening of the White House Correspondents' Dinner when he can say what everyone already knows: his actions are huge, they are controversial, they push the norms of American politics, but fuck it, at a moment when American politics seems increasingly broken, Obama has decided to just go ahead and do what he thinks is right.

Then there was this line:

A few weeks ago, Dick Cheney says he thinks I’m the worst President of his lifetime. Which is interesting, because I think Dick Cheney is the worst President of my lifetime. (Laughter and applause.) It’s quite a coincidence.

It's funny, sure. But he's not kidding. It's just the thing Obama can't usually say. The humor is in the shock of him actually saying it.

But the place where Obama stopped being polite and started getting real was when he brought out Luther, his personal anger translator. This was, itself, a way of giving up the game. The Luther joke comes from the Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele, and the point of it is that Obama, as the first black president, is not allowed to express his anger, as America is terrified of angry black men. And so he's got Luther — the angry black man who can say what he can't.

On Key and Peele, though, it really is a joke. Key plays Luther. Peele plays Obama. It's two comedians commenting on race and politics. But at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, the whole point was that the joke isn't a joke at all. It was Key playing Luther, but it was Obama playing Obama. Obama's anger translator was actually translating for Obama, working off a script that had to be approved by Obama. And so when Luther spoke, now he really was speaking for Obama:

THE PRESIDENT: In our fast-changing world, traditions like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner are important.

LUTHER: I mean, really, what is this dinner? (Laughter.) And why am I required to come to it? (Laughter.) Jeb Bush, do you really want to do this? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Because despite our differences, we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day.

LUTHER: And we can count on Fox News to terrify old white people with some nonsense! (Laughter.) "Sharia law is coming to Cleveland. Run for the damn hills!" (Laughter.) Y’all, it’s ridiculous. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: We won’t always see eye to eye.

LUTHER: Oh, and CNN, thank you so much for the wall-to-wall Ebola coverage. For two whole weeks, we were one step away from the Walking Dead. (Laughter.) And then you all got up and just moved on to the next day. That was awesome. Oh, and by the way, just if you haven’t noticed, you don’t have Ebola! (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: But I still deeply appreciate the work that you do.

LUTHER: Y'all remember when I had that big, old hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and then I plugged it? Remember that? Which "Obama’s Katrina" was that one? Was that 19? Or was it 20? Because I can’t remember. (Laughter.)

There are no jokes there. There's just Obama saying what he has to say and Luther saying what Obama actually believes.

And what Obama believes is that the press is often sensational, trivial, and fearmongering. He thinks they hype negative stories for weeks on end and then refuse to admit their mistake when the horror fizzles. He thinks he gets the blame for catastrophes but little credit for solutions. He thinks the media has a deep bias toward negative stories (which, of course, we do).

But if Obama is annoyed at the press, he is appalled at Republicans who deny climate change — and are trying to block him from taking action to stop climate change. Obama believes global warming a generational threat, and so when he sees James Inhofe, the chair of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, throwing snowballs on the chamber's floor, well, his thoughts on that would likely be seen as unpresidential if he gave them voice.

Except on the night of the White House Correspondents' Dinner:

THE PRESIDENT: The science is clear. Nine of the ten hottest years ever came in the last decade.

LUTHER: Now, I’m not a scientist, but I do know how to count to 10. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Rising seas, more violent storms.

LUTHER: We’ve got mosquitos. Sweaty people on the train, stinking it up. It’s just nasty. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: I mean, look at what’s happening right now. Every serious scientist says we need to act. The Pentagon says it’s a national security risk. Miami floods on a sunny day, and instead of doing anything about it, we’ve got elected officials throwing snowballs in the Senate!

LUTHER: Okay, Mr. President. Okay, I think they’ve got it, bro.

THE PRESIDENT: It is crazy! What about our kids? What kind of stupid, shortsighted, irresponsible bull -- (Laughter and applause.)

LUTHER: Wow! Hey! (Applause.)


LUTHER: All due respect, sir. You don’t need an anger translator. (Laughter.) You need counseling.

So the joke here was that Obama is so angry about the Republican Party's climate denialism that he even managed to scare his anger translator. This isn't a joke. It's just Obama's opinion, delivered with a fury that's rarely allowed in American politics.

Read these sentences again: "Every serious scientist says we need to act. The Pentagon says it's a national security risk. Miami floods on a sunny day, and instead of doing anything about it, we've got elected officials throwing snowballs in the Senate!" Is there a single one of them that you think Obama doesn't believe? He gets right up to the first syllable of calling it "bullshit." But since he said it at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, he can just say he's kidding, even though everyone knows he's not kidding in the least.

To paraphrase Bruce Banner, Obama's secret is he's always angry, at least about this stuff — but the White House Correspondents' Dinner is the only weekend of the year in which he's allowed to show it, because the press has promised, for that one day of the year, to pretend they didn't notice.

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