Barack Obama is not a funny man. He thinks he is — and of course, when you're president, everyone laughs at your jokes — but really, not funny. Angry? Sure. Bitter? You bet. But funny — not so much.
Which makes his yearly outing to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner a bit uncomfortable. See, the idea there is, make fun of yourself. But it takes a big man to mock himself, to take his failures, hold them up for everyone to see, and say, as Chandler Bing of "Friends" might: "Could I be any more ridiculous?"
Once a year, at the dinner known as the "nerd prom," the president drops in to deliver a short comedy bit heavy on self-deprecation. President Reagan was a master, goofing on himself as a slow-witted Hollywood rube; George H.W. Bush stepped out of his stiff regal patrician persona to paste himself with a few zingers; Bill Clinton singed himself with zest after his affair with a White House intern.
And George W. Bush was, frankly, a master. Derided like Reagan as a slow-witted rube, but this time from Texas, Mr. Bush once brought an impersonator on stage to mock him nonstop, for everything from his marble-mouthed delivery to his low approval rating. Mastery. Brilliant.
But Mr. Obama each year proves he just isn't man enough to point his super-intellect at himself. Sure, he almost always delivers a self-burn or two at the outset, but he always goes on a scorched-earth campaign after that, viciously ripping any and all critics who have taken him on.
This past Saturday night was no different.
"It is great to be back. What a year, huh? I usually start these dinners with a few self-deprecating jokes. After my stellar 2013, what can I possibly talk about?" he said at the top of his 20-minute routine.
He was, of course, about to mock the dismal rollout of Obamacare. But in his very first joke, he did so not by targeting himself, but by going after 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"At one point, things got so bad, the 47 percent called Mitt Romney to apologize," he said to applause and laughter from the heavily liberal crowd. He made two other jokes, both weak, about the rollout, and done. "Rather than dwell on the past, I would like to pivot to this dinner," he said. End of self-deprecation.
Then, it was all about stabbing his foes. He'd bring up Kenya and "birthers" not once but twice, delight in charging Republicans with racism (which also filled a lengthy serious passage at the end of his comedy bit), in targeting two private citizens (the Koch brothers), and in musing about "what did we do to piss off Chris Christie so bad?" (So classy.)
He seemed positively obsessed with the Republicans who are about to vie for his job. Like this line, talking about the wonders of snowboarding in the Winter Olympics: "We haven't seen somebody pull a 180 that fast since Rand Paul disinvited that disgruntled rancher from this dinner."
"As a general rule, things don't end well if the sentence starts, 'Let me tell you something I know about the Negro,'" he said to laughter, apparently seeking to connect the senator with embattled Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his racist comments. "You don't really need to hear the rest of it. Just a tip for you. Don't start your sentence that way."
He targeted Sen. Ted Cruz, too: "But I have not given up the idea of working with Congress. In fact, two weeks ago, Sen. Ted Cruz and I, we got a bill done together and I have to say the signing ceremony was something special. We got a picture of it I think." Cut to Mr. Obama signing a bill at his desk, a disgruntled Mr. Cruz behind him, a hideous devil with horns on the other side, a sign reading "hell" covered with snow and ice. Get it? Hilarious.
And he took aim at Texas Gov. Rick Perry: Mr. Obama said Mr. Perry had followed a move by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and named a school after the president. Cut to a picture of a school sign: "Raging Socialist High School, 'Home of the Fighting Chomskys,' Bake Sale Tuesday, All Proceeds to Be Divided Equally." LOL.
Throughout the monologue, the 2,500 people in the Washington Hilton howled their approval at the over-the-top attacks. Later, when comedian Joel McHale made a Nancy Pelosi joke, there were only groans.
But Mr. Obama knows that the highly partisan crowd at the annual event will eat up his vindictive diatribe against the Republican Party, and each year, it does. So every year, Mr. Obama makes it all just a bit more vicious. Still, that seems to be exactly the problem: A man who can't laugh at himself is a man devoid of humor, and nearly always, bitter, petty and small.
Like Barack Obama.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.