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The joke was that Obama wasn't joking

Obama at the White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 30, 2016
We're not joking, just joking, we are joking, just joking, we're not joking.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

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 Barack Obama's performance on Saturday was that he wasn't joking. Everyone just had to pretend he was. This was true from the beginning of his remarks, when he walked to the podium to Anna Kendrick's cover of "Cups" (chorus: "you're gonna miss me when I'm gone").

"You can’t say it, but you know it is true," he told the crowd, grinning. The implication was clear: My approval ratings are going up. Unemployment dipped below 5 percent this year. My financial reforms are working, and tens of millions of people have gotten coverage through Obamacare. And the Republicans are about to nominate Donald freakin' Trump. You don't know how lucky you had it with me.

It's only on the evening of the White House Correspondents' Dinner when he can say what he really thinks: I'm pretty damn good at this job, and in a year maybe you'll start to recognize it.

Then there was this line:

In just six short months, I will be officially a lame duck, which means Congress now will flat out reject my authority, and Republican leaders won’t take my phone calls. And this is going to take some getting use to. It’s really gonna … It’s a curve ball. I don’t know what to do with it. Of course, in fact, for four months now congressional Republicans have been saying there are things I cannot do in my final year. Unfortunately, this dinner was not one of them.

Obama has made it very clear, ever since Republicans retook the House in 2010, but especially since the Supreme Court nomination fight this year, that he views Republicans' unwillingness to so much as consider administration initiatives to be unprofessional and corrosive to democratic norms that have kept the federal government functioning for centuries. That they're treating a duly elected president as an illegitimate lame duck months before his successor even receives his or her party's nomination. Obama's line has the appearance of a joke — it's funny, because he means the opposite of the literal meaning! — but it's just a sarcastic rendering of a serious point he's been trying to get across for years.

Obama followed this up with straightforward revenge fantasy:

In fact, I think we've got Republican Sens. Tim Scott and Cory Gardner. They are in the house, which reminds me … security, bar the doors. Judge Merrick Garland come on out. We are going to do this right here. Right now.

It's like the red wedding.

Obama is joking that he was going to have his men murder Republican senators who accepted the Correspondents' Association's offer of hospitality at the Washington Hilton. It's good-hearted ribbing, but it's premised upon very real anger and frustration.

This approach was not limited to Republicans, as illustrated with this line toward the beginning:

I do apologize. I know I was a little late tonight. I was running on CPT, which stands for jokes that white people should not make.

This isn't making light-hearted fun of Hillary Clinton and Bill de Blasio for their cracks about "colored people time." Obama's delivery is totally stone-faced. It's a joke, but the implication is the same as if it weren't: White people do not get to joke about black people being late. Cut it out.

Same goes for the press. Obama reserved his most cutting barbs for the people ostensibly throwing this event for him:

Even reporters have left me. Savannah Guthrie, she has left the White House press corps to host the Today show. Norah O’Donnell left the briefing room to host CBS This Morning. Jake Tapper left journalism to join CNN.

…I also would like to acknowledge some of the award-winning reporters that we have with us here tonight. Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber. Thank you all for everything you have done. I’m just joking. As you know, Spotlight is a film, a movie about investigative journalists with the resources and the autonomy to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable. Best fantasy film since Star Wars.

Look. That was maybe a cheap shot. I understand the news business is tough these days. It keeps changing all the time. Every year at this dinner somebody makes a joke about BuzzFeed, for example, changing the media landscape. And every year the Washington Post laughs a little bit less hard. Kind of a silence there. Especially at the Washington Post table.

I don’t want to spend too much time on The Donald. Following your lead, I want to show some restraint. Because I think we can all agree that from the start he's gotten the appropriate amount of coverage befitting the seriousness of his candidacy. Ha. I hope you all are proud of yourselves. The guy wanted to give his hotel business a boost and now we are praying that Cleveland makes it through July.

Obama did, as is custom, end the speech with an appreciation of the press's role, honoring the actual Spotlight journalists (Sacha Pfeiffer, Mike Rezendes, Walter Robinson, Matt Caroll, and Ben Bradlee Jr.) and recently freed Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.

But only after he offered a barely restrained critique of the media's failures. It obsesses over lost planes and misreports basic facts like what a Supreme Court decision says (per his dig on CNN). It doesn't devote resources to serious investigative reporting. Traditional organizations aren't adapting to compete with sites like BuzzFeed. Everyone in the media is giving Trump a platform and elevating a dangerous racist demagogue in the process.

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.

President Obama on Donald Trump's absence from the dinner