Biden Targets Trump and Addresses Press Freedom at Annual Correspondents’ Dinner

President Joe Biden embraced the traditional role of humorist-in-chief at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, not shying away from jabs at his predecessor or from making light of his own age.

by Faruk Imamovic
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Biden Targets Trump and Addresses Press Freedom at Annual Correspondents’ Dinner
© Getty Images/Kevin Dietsch

President Joe Biden embraced the traditional role of humorist-in-chief at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, not shying away from jabs at his predecessor or from making light of his own age. As he addressed a packed audience of nearly 3,000 journalists, celebrities, and politicians, Biden’s remarks highlighted the dual nature of the event—entertainment intertwined with the underlying tensions of current political issues.

“Of course, the 2024 election’s in full swing and, yes, age is an issue: I’m a grown man running against a 6-year-old,” Biden quipped, poking fun at former President Donald Trump by referencing his nickname for him, “Sleepy Don.” This light-hearted attack on his electoral opponent set the tone for an evening that oscillated between comedy and seriousness.

The humor continued as Biden made a sharp contrast between his active campaign following his State of the Union address and Trump's less visible campaign trail presence, hampered by his ongoing criminal trial in New York. “I’ve had a great stretch since the State of the Union, but Donald has had a few rough days lately,” Biden said, alluding to Trump’s legal challenges with a pun, “You might call it ‘stormy’ weather.”

Colin Jost, co-anchor of "Saturday Night Live’s" Weekend Update, also took the stage, keeping up the comedic momentum with digs at both presidential candidates' ages and Trump’s legal troubles. His opening remark, “Can we just acknowledge how refreshing it is to see a president of the United States at an event that doesn’t begin with a bailiff saying, ‘All rise’?” drew laughter and applause, setting a light-hearted tone amidst the evening’s deeper political undercurrents.

Colin Jost
Colin Jost© Getty Images/Bryan Bedder
 

The Shadow of Gaza

Outside the Washington Hilton, the atmosphere was markedly different. A large group of pro-Palestinian protesters voiced their dissent loudly as attendees made their way into the event. The protesters criticized Biden's handling of the war in Gaza and accused the attendees of complicity through their silence or inadequate coverage of the ongoing conflict. Mimi Ziad, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement, passionately expressed the demonstrators' sentiment, accusing those attending the dinner of prioritizing profit over freedom and ignoring the plight of journalists in Gaza.

Inside, while Biden touched on themes of press freedom and the threats to democracy he perceives under a potential second Trump presidency, he notably did not mention the war in Gaza directly. This omission highlighted the complex balancing act of addressing both domestic political humor and the grave international issues facing his administration.

Activists Rally Outside White House Correspondents Dinner In Support Of Gaza
Activists Rally Outside White House Correspondents Dinner In Support Of Gaza© Getty Images/Kent Nishimura
 

Preparation and Performance

The preparation for Biden’s comedic performance was meticulous, with Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign and former chief of content studio Dreamworks, playing a significant role. Administration officials disclosed that Katzenberg led daily strategy sessions to refine the president's speech, ensuring the material was ready well ahead of schedule—a departure from previous years' last-minute scrambles.

The strategy included ensuring that the humor was spread evenly across political lines, a point emphasized by Kelly O’Donnell, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. O’Donnell noted the importance of balanced humor that targets both political parties and the media, maintaining the tradition of neutrality in jest that the dinner is known for.

Serious Tones Amidst the Satire

While the night was largely framed by humor, there were moments when President Biden steered the conversation to more serious matters, signaling the gravity of the issues at stake. One such instance was his call for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is detained in Russia. “Putin should release Evan,” Biden stated solemnly. “We are doing everything we can.” This plea underscored the ongoing concerns about press freedom and the safety of journalists worldwide, themes that resonated deeply with the audience of media professionals.

The contrast between the lighthearted and serious elements of Biden’s speech reflected the broader tensions within American politics, where entertainment often intersects with urgent political discourse. Historically, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has served as a platform for presidents to showcase a lighter side, but also to address pressing national and international issues in a forum that reaches a wide audience of influencers and decision-makers.

Reflections on Past Dinners and Political Implications

The historical context of these dinners adds depth to the understanding of their significance. Notably, when President Barack Obama humorously targeted Donald Trump at the 2011 dinner, it was speculated that the mockery influenced Trump’s decision to run for office. This instance illustrates how the event can have unexpected and far-reaching political ramifications, beyond its immediate night of jest.

President Biden, aware of these dynamics, navigated the delicate balance of being both humorous and impactful. His advisers emphasized his enjoyment of the event, particularly the interaction with the press, which plays a crucial role in the democratic process. However, the undercurrents of political tension were palpable, reflecting the complexities of Biden's presidency, especially as he faces scrutiny over various issues, including his age and decision-making capacity.

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