"Personal charm may be Obama's last best hope" headlined the Washington Post on Monday. That charm was on ample display at the annual vanity fest called the White House Correspondents Association dinner over the weekend.
The dinner always features two comedians - one professional, and the other, the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Skilled joke writers contribute the one-liners, but delivery counts, too, and President Obama has clearly improved during the course of four years.
In 2009, some of his jokes were in bad taste. He said Dick Cheney was writing his memoirs, to be titled "How to Shoot Friends and Interrogate People." While a few lines were amusing - addressing the press he said, "most of you covered me and all of you voted for me" - the speech wasn't top-drawer entertainment.
This year's performance was better. The relaxed president demonstrated a mastery of timing, and the humor, if not quite self-deprecating, was disarming. He entered to rap music, and grinned that "Rush Limbaugh warned you: Second-term baby!" Noting that he has gone a little gray, the president acknowledged that when he looks in the mirror, he realizes that "I'm not the strapping, young, Muslim socialist that I used to be." As I say, not self-deprecating, because he's skewering his more fevered critics, not himself, but unquestionably entertaining.
The dinner arrived at an opportune moment. While the president has mastered the high art of giving his most devoted fans (the Washington press corps) a good time, events of the past couple of weeks demonstrate that he remains an amateur, or worse, at the rest of his job.
His signature initiative, Obamacare, was described by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus as "a huge train wreck." Other increasingly queasy Democrats have complained to the White House about rate increases and regulatory burdens. "Democrats in both houses of Congress" The New York Times reports, "said some members of their party were getting nervous that they could pay a political price if the rollout of the law was messy or if premiums went up significantly."
The president's transparent attempt to inflict pain on the country to validate his own extravagant predictions of doom regarding the sequester appears to have backfired. When the FAA furloughed air traffic controllers rather than reducing, say, its travel budget or a $474 million grant program to "make communities more livable and sustainable" - public ire was turned not on Republicans but on the FAA. Congress passed and the president was obliged tamely to sign a law directing the FAA to make better decisions.
The president's attempt to pass gun control legislation by relying solely on the "bully pulpit" was defeated. Obama vented his frustration at a foot-stamping press conference that served only to highlight his ineffectiveness.
Obama's foolhardy declaration of a "red line" in Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons has now come back to haunt him. Reluctance to intervene in Syria is a defensible policy, but the president painted himself into a corner by declaring that if Assad used certain weapons, the U.S. would act. With our allies' intelligence agencies now confirming that such weapons have been used, the president's bluff has been called. He may be forced to take action he believes to be unwise (and that may indeed be unwise) only because he boxed himself in. "I don't bluff," the president vowed in 2012 regarding Iran. Tehran is watching now. Everyone is watching.
The Boston bombing has revealed that the Obama Administration's priorities in the struggle against "workplace violence" and "overseas contingencies" have weakened us. The failure of the FBI and CIA to thwart Tamerlane Tsarnaev - despite warnings from Russia, his extremist comments in his mosque, his patronage of jihadi websites and his travel to Dagestan - demonstrate that the guidance the Administration is providing is dangerously wrong. It comes from the top. As Sebastian Gorka of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies put it, "The fact is religion has been expunged from counterterrorism training. The FBI can't talk about Islam, and they can't talk about jihad."
The results are dire. But at least everyone had a good laugh on Saturday night.