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President Obama’s White House Correspondents Dinner speech: Controversial or a classic of the genre?

at 11:28 AM ET, 04/30/2012

President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night was chockful of laughter-provoking — and occasionally eyebrow raising — material.

He joked about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sending him drunken texts from Cartajena. He poked fun at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s wealth. He even kidded about stories that as a child in Indonesia he had eaten dog. (You can watch the full speech here.)

“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?,” Obama joked at one point. “A pit bull is delicious.”

Some conservatives quickly seized on the comments. The influential Drudge Report led with a picture of Obama over a headline that read “BARACK BIZARRE: PRESIDENT JOKES ABOUT EATING DOGS?” (By Monday morning, the story had been moved from the lead story on Drudge to a prominent bullet.)

But, will there be any lingering (negative) effect from Obama’s speech on Saturday night?

Recent history suggests not. Obama’s White House Correspondence Dinner speech was in keeping with speeches delivered by presidents to the gathering over the last few decades.

President George W. Bush’s 2006 speech, for example, featured a side-by-side impersonator, poking fun at his image as an empty vessel. In 1999, President Bill Clinton joked that he had outstanding debt to Williams & Connolly , the law firm that handled his many legal problems during his presidency.

You get the idea. These presidential speeches typically toe the line between clever and (politically) stupid — with apologies to David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel — while very rarely crossing over to the dark side of that equation.

Controversy — at least that extends beyond a day or two after the event — is a rarity. (The speeches by the paid entertainment are another thing altogether. Stephen Colbert’s speech in 2006 was cast by many liberals as a “speak truth to power” moment; a decade earlier, radio host Don Imus’ speech drew scads of criticism from elected officials.)

What these presidential speeches tend to do is affirm the already deeply-held feelings of each party’s base. After all, who watches cable television or follows Twitter at 10 pm on a Saturday night but total and complete political junkies?

Democrats almost certainly thought President Obama’s speech was just the right mix of self-deprecating humor and barbs directed at Republicans. Republicans almost certainly thought the speech was too flip, illuminating what they believe to be the underlying arrogance of this president.

To the extent those low information voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum were even aware of President Obama’s speech, it was likely in a snippet of news coverage on Sunday or even today.

The lesson, as always, then is not to make too much of these moments. Barring a major flub, the White House Correspondents Dinner speech — including the one delivered by President Obama on Saturday — are ho-hum moments in the broader campaign dialogue.

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