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Obama wasn’t joking at the White House correspondents’ dinner

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"Everybody has got plenty of advice," sighed President Obama at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. "Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in 'The American President.' And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?"

That's it. That's the joke. Or, perhaps more to the point, that isn't the joke. There's no punchline. It's more of a straightforward rebuttal to a recent Maureen Dowd column.

Obama's speech at the White House correspondents' dinner was well received, and for good reason -- it was very funny. But there were a lot of moments when Obama seemed to be subverting the rules of the evening in order to get away with telling harsh truths that he could later claim were just jokes.

"Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress," the president said. "'Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?' they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?"

Everyone laughed. But do you detect an actual joke there? And lest you think I'm cutting the punchline, here's Obama's next sentence: "I'm sorry. I get frustrated sometimes."

Juliet Eilperin and Zach Goldfarb have a nice piece delivering the context for that frustration:

At this point in his presidency, Obama has pretty much tried it all. He has met privately with Republican leaders in the House, collaborated with bipartisan groups of senators and taken his case to the people, hoping that the power of public opinion could win over his opponents in Congress. This year, for the most part, none of those approaches have worked.

What's left, they write, is Obama's "charm." And I think if you read their piece closely -- or just think about Washington for more than a minute -- you won't come away particularly optimistic over the chances for "charm" to work, either.

There should be nothing controversial about this next sentence: If Republicans don't want to work with President Obama, there's nothing he can do to make them work with him. Speeches don't work. Backroom negotiations don't do it. And of course "charm" is insufficient.

And yet, that sentence is deeply controversial. Most political commentary expressly denies it. If written down, the implicit assumption that dominates this town is, in fact, closer to the opposite: If Republicans aren't working with President Obama, it's because he's doing something to drive them away, or because he's not doing something to pull them closer in.

But politicians understand their incentives. Republican legislators have to win primaries among electorates that deeply dislike President Obama. In that world, working with the White House very likely means losing your job. It also means making Obama more popular, which means making it less likely that you and your party will get back into the majority in the next election. And on the other side of this equation is -- what? Bourbon with Obama? A speech Obama gave to 2,000 people in your state?

The White House can employ better or worse strategies, of course. But it's deeply insulting to the grown men and women who populate the U.S. Congress to posit that the only reason they're acting as they are is that the president doesn't lavish them with sufficient attention, or campaign in their districts, or twist arms like Lyndon Johnson. Give Congress a bit more credit than that. Like the president at the White House correspondents' dinner, they take this stuff seriously.