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Obama plays along at annual Washington press dinner

This news story was published on April 30, 2012.
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By Lesley Clark, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama poked fun at his Republican rivals Saturday night, but didn’t spare his own Secret Service, secretary of state or even his past indulgence of exotic cuisine as he delivered remarks before a glittery crowd of Hollywood stars, political power brokers and journalists.

Obama opened his bit at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association by exiting stage right to pretend that he’d been caught complaining about a hot mic in the men’s room — a jibe at his overheard conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

“What am I doing here?” his voice asked off stage. “I’m the president of the United States and I’m opening for Jimmy Kimmel and telling knock-knock jokes to Kim Kardashian.”

The dinner, which benefits a scholarship for journalism students, began in 1914 as a dinner for the president and the press corps that covers him. But over the past two decades it’s morphed into a star-studded affair featuring movie and TV stars and sports figures. At one point, Obama chatted from the head table with George Clooney — who was mobbed by a steady stream of attendees wanting pictures, and who will raise money for the president’s re-election campaign at a fundraiser next month at his California home.

From the podium, Obama punched verbal jabs at his presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney — including a 2 for 1 at Romney and the federal government’s General Services Administration, recently rocked by a scandal over excessive spending on a conference in Las Vegas.

“It’s great to be here this evening in the vast, magnificent Hilton ballroom—or what Mitt Romney would call a little fixer-upper,” Obama said, poking fun at Romney’s taste for pricey homes. “I mean, look at this party. We’ve got men in tuxes, women in gowns, fine wine, first-class entertainment. I was just relieved to learn this was not a GSA conference.”

Obama took a few shots at himself, noting that he hadn’t yet seen “The Hunger Games”: “Not enough class warfare for me.” And he aired a fake attack ad, delving into a campaign fracas involving dogs: Democrats have barked at Romney for once putting his family dog in a crate affixed to the roof of a car, and Republicans have made note of an admission in one of Obama’s books that he ate dog meat as a child in Indonesia.

“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” Obama asked, referencing Sarah Palin’s 2008 GOP convention speech. “A pit bull is delicious.”

Obama noted that his critics have accused him of putting too much blame on his predecessor.“But let’s not forget,” he said. “That’s a practice that was initiated by George W. Bush.”

He also delivered a barb at Congress, thanking its members “who took a break from their exhausting schedule of not passing any laws to be here tonight.” And he noted that the night’s entertainer, comedian Jimmy Kimmel, had made his debut on “The Man Show.”

“In Washington, that’s what we call a congressional hearing on contraception,” Obama said, a reference to an all-male House Republican panel that was convened in the controversy over his push to require religious institutions to provide contraceptive coverage in health-insurance plans for their employees.

Kimmel got in a few digs at Obama, joking that “there’s a term for guys like President Barack Obama. Probably not two terms.

“Remember when the country rallied around you in hopes for a better tomorrow?” Kimmel said. “That was a good one.”

Obama suggested that he and Romney “actually have a lot in common,” includingwives who are more popular than their husbands. And he said, they both have degrees from Harvard.

“I have one, he has two. What a snob,” Obama said — a joke that earned him a thumbs up from dinner guest and former presidential contender Rick Santorum, who had criticized Obama as a snob for encouraging students to attend college.

The dinner wasn’t all in jest. The association presented scholarships to a parade of students and honored reporters for their coverage of the White House and other topics. Obama, too, turned serious, paying tribute to Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London, who died while covering unrest in Syria.

“I never forget that our country depends on you,” Obama said to the reporters. “You help protect our freedom, our democracy and our way of life.”

But in keeping with the tenor of the night, he closed with a joke, riffing on the scandal involving Secret Service agents who brought prostitutes to their hotel in Colombia.

“I had a lot more material prepared,” he said. “But I have to get the Secret Service home in time for their new curfew.”

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