WASHINGTON – Searching for laughs – and finding them – president Barack Obama spared few targets Saturday night, from Democratic allies to Republican antagonists to the journalists who cover him.
At his first presidential appearance before the Gridiron Club, Obama picked up on the spirit of the evening, leveling jokes in every direction including his own.
He jabbed at potential Republican presidential rivals. He saluted Mississippi’s portly Gov. Haley Barbour, saying he appreciated his support of first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.
“Haley, when Michelle said you should run, she didn’t mean for president.”
He didn’t spare himself, either. He noted that last time he was at the Gridiron, in 2006, he was a first-term senator from Illinois.
“Back then I was a newcomer who couldn’t get anything done in the Senate. Now I’m a president who can’t get anything done in the Senate.”
Obama also poked fun at a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“Tim Pawlenty’s not here, but he’s hit the campaign trail hard,” Obama said. “And to be honest, I think the American people are going to have some tough questions for Tim. Specifically, ‘Who are you and where do you come from?’ Which is OK. Two years into my presidency and I’m still getting those questions.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the main Republican speaker, needled the president by recalling one of Obama’s private musings to fundraisers during the 2008 campaign that conservatives found refuge in religion and guns. Daniels, his right arm in a sling due to rotator cuff surgery, quipped: “Mr. President, until I get this thing off, I can cling to my gun or my Bible, but not both.”
Later he turned to Obama and mockingly took a shot at the president’s penchant for assistance during his speeches. “Mr. President you’re not laughing, who forgot to put ha-ha-ha on the teleprompter?”
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Democratic speaker and Obama’s point person on health care, fired back at Daniels.
“We’re both Midwestern governors, we’ve both been cabinet secretaries, and neither of us is going to be president in 2012,” the former Kansas governor joked.
The event brought journalists and public figures together for a night of skits that lampoon the capital’s personalities and issues of the day.
This is the 126th dinner for the Gridiron, Washington’s oldest and most exclusive organization for journalists. Its motto is “singe but never burn.” Obama is the 21st president to attend the Gridiron. Every president since the club was founded in 1885 has addressed it, except for Grover Cleveland.
The event is on the record, but the club does not permit television coverage.
This year’s dinner honored Washington Post columnist and long-time Gridiron member David Broder, who died Wednesday.