NEW YORK — Two nights after one of the most contentious debates in modern presidential history, President Obama and Mitt Romney put aside their political differences on Thursday night to trade jokes and playfully roast each other.
Dressed in white tie at a glittering dinner in midtown Manhattan, the two men delivered speeches at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s annual charity benefit that every four years hosts the presidential candidates for a lighthearted break from the grueling campaign.“This is the third time that Governor Romney and I have met recently,” Obama said. “Some of you may have noticed, I had a lot more energy in our second debate. I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate.”
Romney, sitting with his wife Ann a couple seats down on the dais at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, laughed. “It’s taken New York’s highest spiritual authority to get us back on our best behavior,” Romney quipped.
The Republican nominee began his roast by making light of his stiff persona.
“A campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes — blue jeans in the morning, perhaps, suits for a lunch fundraiser, sport coat for dinner — but it’s nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house,” Romney said.
And he singled out New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also seated at the dais, with a joking reference to his own political resume. Cuomo, he said, is “already being talked about for higher office. A very impressive fellow, but he may be getting a little ahead of himself. I mean, let me get this straight: The man has put in one term as a governor, he has a father who happened to be a governor and he thinks that’s enough to run for president?”
But Romney seemed to aim more of his humor at the president than at himself. “Of course, we’re down to the final months of the president’s term. As President Obama surveys the Waldorf banquet room with everybody in white tie and finery you have to wonder what he’s thinking: ‘So little time, so much to redistribute.’”
Romney added that he and Obama are both “very lucky to have one person who’s always in our corner, someone who we can lean on and someone who is a comforting presence without whom we wouldn’t be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife, Ann; he has Bill Clinton.”
And Romney took a shot at the press, joking that he had “already seen early reports from tonight’s dinner. Headline: ‘Obama Embraced by Catholics, Romney Dines with Rich People.’”
Obama, following Romney at the podium, began his roast by asking everyone to “please take their seats. Otherwise Clint Eastwood will yell at them.”
The president twice made light of his performance in the first debate on Oct. 3, which was also his and Michelle’s wedding anniversary. “There are worse things that can happen to you on your anniversary than forgetting to buy a gift,” Obama quipped.
But he offered a preview of the third debate. “Monday’s debate is a little bit different because the topic is foreign policy,” Obama said. “Spoiler alert: We got Bin Laden.”
Noting that “Mitt” is actually Romney’s middle name, Obama said, “I wish I could use my middle name.” (The president’s middle name is Hussein.)
Obama took some shots at his rival, too, saying, “Earlier today I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown.”
And the president made light of Romney’s tumultuous overseas trip this summer, in which the Republican angered the British people by questioning London’s readiness to host the Olympics.
“Of course, world affairs are a challenge for every candidate,” Obama said. “After my foreign trip in 2008, I was attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our allies overseas. And I have to say, I’m impressed with how well Governor Romney has avoided that problem.” At that, Obama looked over to make eye contact with Romney and the two laughed.
Both candidates used Vice President Biden as a punching bag. Obama remarked how much had changed since he first addressed this dinner in 2008. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘Barack, you’re not as young as you used to be. Where’s that golden smile? Where’s that pep in your step?’ And I say, ‘Settle down, Joe, I’m trying to run a cabinet meeting.’”
Al Smith IV, the great-grandson of the dinner’s namesake, who was a former New York governor and the first Catholic nominated for president, shared some jokes of his own while introducing Obama and Romney. Acknowledging the women in the room, Smith referenced Romney’s controversial remark in Tuesday night’s debate by saying, “It’s good to see who’s getting out of those binders.”
Later, Smith congratulated Romney for giving more than 10 percent of his income to charity. But, he joked, “the charity is the federal government.”
He took a shot at Obama, too. “We recognize that you have some challenges this year. It’s never good when your opponent has produced more sons than you have jobs.”
Smith also poked fun at Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York and a man of considerable girth, who sat between the two candidates. He joked that they were separated by a “vast expanse.”