Congress is used to being the butt of the joke. And ribbing from the president comes with the territory, especially at annual formal-dress affairs where top government officials poke at each other for the benefit of the press.
But those ground rules also hold that attempts at lame political humor ought to stop at the water’s edge.
Two weeks ago to the Gridiron Club, where the motto is “singe not burn,” Obama's monologue referred to “a dysfunctional Congress, a looming budget crisis, complaints that I don’t spend enough time with the press,” and then noted that those were the headlines when he previously addressed the dinner, two years before. “It’s funny, it seems like it was just yesterday,” he said to a silent rim-shot in the background and warm laughter from the crowd.
Such soft-soap comedy is what passes for social lubricant in the all-too-humorless capital these days, because all the players have essentially agreed to get the jokes, accept their limitations and move on.
Which is why Obama’s quip Tuesday on the Tel Aviv tarmac fell with such a thud. It sounded only more discordant in context, which was the unscripted small talk between two global powers laboring to paper over the distance and prickliness of their relationship.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked, while the pair prepared to review a military honor guard, if Obama was counting on some rest and relaxation during his trip to Israel, the president broke into a broad grin and didn’t miss a beat before allowing: “It's good to get away from Congress.”
The jape was caught on an open mic and appeared in no official transcripts, underscoring the perception that Obama is never more candid than when he’s lamenting his troubles back home in conversations abroad — and doing so with a foreign leader on the curious assumption that no one’s listening in. Recall how, at a Pacific Rim summit in Seoul, South Korea, a year ago, Obama asked Russian leaders for “space” on negotiating a missile defense pact until after the campaign, promising, “After my election, I have more flexibility.”
If overseas travel is a sort of elixir of truth for the president, then this “in vino veritas” moment couldn’t have come at a less opportune time.
Republicans are wondering openly whether they should take as for real, or only for show, this month’s ballyhooed Obama “charm offensive” of senatorial dinners and House caucus meetings. Rank-and-file Democrats, too, are wondering if the president’s visits to them will lead to their becoming more regular legislative collaborators or if they’ll still be mostly taken for granted.
Hill leaders of both parties are skeptical. The president revealed his continued disinterest in congressional outreach this winter, when he promoted a relatively obscure administration official that none of them know well, Miguel Rodriguez, to run the legislative affairs operation in the West Wing.
The time to settle those mysteries will be forced soon, because April looks to be the make-or-break moment for bipartisan agreements on both of the president’s top non-budget domestic priorities for the year, the immigration overhaul and a package of proposals to reduce gun violence.
Fortunately for the president, the coming two-week recess should afford him the time needed to assuage any hurt feelings in Congress. And he was lucky, too, that Speaker John A. Boehner was willing to shrug off Tuesday's slight. “So much for the charm offensive,” the Ohio Republican said with a tight smile when asked by CNN about Obama’s joke, which was broadcast live on TV across Israel. But then he turned magnanimous: “Comes with the territory. I’d rather be heckled than ignored. Or as I like to say, you only tease the ones you love.”
If nothing else, Boehner essentially gave the president’s sense of humor a pass — at least until the next big event where jocularity is obligatory, the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 27.
“I try to be civil, to not take any cheap shots” at Congress, Obama declared in the setup to one of his rim-shot lines at last year’s so-called nerd prom. “I want to especially thank all the members who took a break from their exhausting schedule of not passing any laws to be here tonight.”
He now has five weeks to come up with some better material.