Was President Barack Obama really joking at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association dinner? Or was he showing, as I suspect, early signs of the second-term blues?
It's fashionable for critics — especially if they didn't get invited — to harrumph with outrage over the chummy, elbow-massaging, C-SPAN-covered spring "nerd prom" of politicians, media moguls, Hollywood stars and, here and there, actual White House journalists.
But sometimes actual news or, at least, useful insights break out, particularly if you listen for hidden messages in the president's traditionally humorous roast of himself and others.
Right off the bat, Obama drew contrasts between his first and second terms. "How do you like my new entrance music?" he asked the crowd after half-dancing his way to the podium to the pounding beat of a rap tune.
"Rush Limbaugh warned you about this," he quipped. "Second term, baby. We're changing things around here."
He also turned the paranoid right's Obama myths on their head: "I'm not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be."
But some of his humor made one wonder whether he was actually joking.
"Some folks still don't think I spend enough time with Congress," the president said. "'Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?' they ask. Really?" The crowd laughed.
"Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?" he added. The crowd laughed even more. But the line had an edge to it that even Obama seemed to notice. "I'm sorry," he said, expressing mock regret. "I get frustrated sometimes."
Go for the pain, I have heard wise stand-up comedians advise rising comics. The day-to-day pain of life gives comedians some of their best material. Obama's day-to-day political pain seemed to produce his most memorable punch lines.
"Everybody has got plenty of advice," he sighed. "Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in 'The American President.' And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what's your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?"
Obama was responding to a column by Dowd, in full mean-girl mode, that praised his ability to connect emotionally with people but said "he still has not learned how to govern."
"No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him," she wrote. She cited his winning public opinion for a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, yet the bill fell short of passage in the Senate — a "glaring example," she wrote, "of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants."
Obama's response: You're living in a fantasy world, Maureen. Yet, she's also right. Obama's response was funny, partly because the truth hurts.
Days after appearing with other former presidents at the dedication ceremony for President George W. Bush's presidential library in Dallas, Obama certainly doesn't want to experience the plunge in approval ratings that sunk Bush's legacy.
Yet, the day after this year's dinner, a Washington Post analysis sounded a lot like Dowd. After more than four years in the White House, it said, the president "still isn't very good at using his personal charm to achieve political success."
Yet charm is one of the few avenues he has left as he pushes such remaining priorities as a sweeping budget deal and comprehensive immigration reform.
Unlike President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress to help him push a record number of his bills to passage, Obama has one of the most hostile Congresses in history. Besides new issues, he still has to defend his past successes, such as the health care law and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill.
Arm-twisting has its place, but it doesn't do much good on core ideological issues like gun control, against which conservatives are remarkably resistant even to polls. Obama's headaches may well get worse after the 2014 midterms, which traditionally draw voters who are older, more conservative and more anti-incumbent, particularly toward whoever is sitting in the White House.
No wonder this president is showing signs of the second-term blues. And that's no joke.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.
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