Biden returns to White House Correspondents Dinner – here are the pitfalls of presidential humor

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Washington DC’s annual tradition of hosting a party with celebrities, journalists and politicians returns Saturday after taking a hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the dynamic of mixing humor and politics hasn’t changed.

The 2022 White House Correspondents Association Dinner will see this entertainment stars descend on the nation’s Capitol to mix with news personalities at the event, which will be hosted by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday joked about a humorous speech President Biden plans to give: “And I will lower expectations and say it’s not funny at all. Just kidding. See?”

The WHCA comes as the Biden administration faces a number of challenges, including rising inflation and concerns of an economic recession, a crisis at the southern border, low approval ratings and a difficult path to maintaining Democratic majorities in Congress.

FILE - Trevor Noah appears at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on March 14, 2021.

FILE – Trevor Noah appears at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on March 14, 2021.
(Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP, File)

Biden’s return marks the first time a sitting president will address the WHCA event after former President Donald Trump notably refused to attend. In 2019 Trump called the gala “so boring and so negative,” opting to hold a rally instead.

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“Seeing the president of the United States come back, and the dinner come back, I think signals more than a break in the pandemic,” Harold Holzer, author of the book “The Presidents vs. The Press,” told the Associated Press. “We’re safe to talk to each other again.

The return of celebrations in 2022 recalls former President Barack Obama’s administration, when the likes of George Clooney, Charlize Theron and Viola Davis attended the annual gala with politicians and journalists. Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson are expected to attend Saturday’s dinner.

President Barack Obama's high-fives late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel during the White House Correspondents Dinner, Saturday, April 28, 2012 in Washington.

President Barack Obama’s high-fives late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel during the White House Correspondents Dinner, Saturday, April 28, 2012 in Washington.
(AP Photo / Haraz N. Ghanbari)

“I think this relationship – even if it’s a one-night thing where witticisms are exchanged and people make fun of others and each other – it’s a very healthy thing,” Holzer said.

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Mixing politics and humor has a time-honored place in Washington, presidential history and Bipartisan Policy Commission fellow Tevi Troy told Fox News Digital in a statement.

“Political humor has a purpose. At a minimal level, it humanizes the politician, but good humor does more,” Troy said.

Former President Bill Clinton’s appearance on Johnny Carson’s show after an embarrassing debut speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention showed he could take a joke, and even rescued his presidential ambitions, Troy said. Carson had never had a politician as a guest, but Clinton was brought in and played a saxophone.

US President Joe Biden

US President Joe Biden
(REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst)

When former President Ronald Reagan joked about the Soviet Union, it highlighted the superiority of the American system, and the flaws of the Cold War opponent’s.

But the ideal presidential humor has to be delicately calibrated between humor and scoring political points.

“Good political humor has to be self-deprecating or gentle,” Troy said.

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An example of the right balance would be Reagan’s joke about then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Troy said. “I have good news and bad news for Mario Cuomo. The good news is the polls show Americans favoring an Italian for President. The bad news is it’s Lee Iacocca,” Reagan said at the 1986 WHCA dinner.

More recently, Obama joked about Trump in 2011, a routine that was supposed to take down Trump, who was in attendance. “Whoops,” Troy commented.

“Obama’s Trump routine was too harsh. It showed great comic timing, poor comic judgment. Anytime the president goes after someone, even a billionaire, it is punching down,” Troy said.

During the Trump administration, several comedians at the WHCA dinner were criticized for being overly harsh and mean spirited. Michelle Wolf’s biting jokes stirred criticism in 2018, and the event the following year featured the history of Ron Chernow.

Generally, political humor on late night television used to be more balanced, according to Troy. “It now skews more left. Carson was careful to hit both sides. We lost something when that balance went away,” Troy added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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