WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama mocked his own administration and gave playful jabs at his critics and Republicans at a black-tie dinner attended by a mix of politicians, celebrities and journalists.
The Republican Party was a favorite target for Obama, speaking at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday night.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney couldn't make the dinner, Obama joked, because he was writing his memoir, "How to shoot friends and interrogate people." It was a reference to Cheney's support of harsh interrogation and his accidental shooting of a hunting companion
The president directly addressed Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who was in the audience.
"Michael for the last time, the Republican Party does not qualify for a bailout. Rush Limbaugh does not count as a troubled asset, I'm sorry," said Obama, referring to recent economic steps of the White House and the conservative radio commentator's public criticism of the Republican party leader.
But Obama targeted his own miscues as well.
"No president in history has ever named three commerce secretaries this quickly," Obama said. The president's two top choices for the position dropped out.
He playfully ribbed his frequent use of a teleprompter and Vice President Joe Biden's knack for speaking off the cuff. And about the Democratic Party, he said his administration has helped in "bringing in fresh, young faces — like Arlen Specter." The 79-year-old Pennsylvania senator, a former Republican, switched parties last month.
Obama noted that he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been political rivals, but he assured the audience "these days, we could not be closer."
"In fact the second she got back from Mexico, she pulled me into a hug," the president said, playing off the threat of a spreading swine flu virus that has targeted Mexico the most.
Obama also turned serious and talked of the financially struggling media industry, praising journalists for holding government officials accountable. "A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America," he said.
The president wasn't the only one to tell jokes.
Tart-tongued comic Wanda Sykes, the dinner's entertainer, poked fun at Obama giving the Queen of England an iPhone during a recent visit. "What are you going to give the Pope, a Bluetooth?," asked Sykes, referring to the hands-free cell phone device. And she questioned first lady Michelle Obama having patted the queen on the back "like she just slid into home plate — way to go, queen!"
The $200-per-ticket dinner attracted plenty of VIPs from outside the Beltway.
Among those attending were Eva Longoria Parker, Ashton Kutcher, Christian Slater, Natalie Portman, Sting, Mariska Hargitay, Steven Spielberg and Jon Bon Jovi. Also there was Richard Phillips, the captain who was held hostage by Somali pirates after his cargo ship was attacked.
Proceeds from the dinner, $98,000, will help feed the hungry and fund journalism scholarships.
Those honored at the dinner are several journalists:
—Sandra Sobieraj Westfall of People magazine and David Greene of National Public Radio, the Merriman Smith Award for presidential coverage under deadline pressure. Westfall won for her election night reporting. Greene won for digging into candidate Obama's speech that addressed the country's racial divide.
—Michael Abramowitz, formerly of The Washington Post, the Aldo Beckman award for his coverage of the final days of the Bush administration.
—Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times, the Edgar A. Poe Award for excellence in coverage of news of national or regional significance, for a series exposing the failure of Washington state hospitals and others to handle the rise of the MRSA staph infection.
The White House Correspondents Association was formed in 1914 as a liaison between the press and the president. Every president since Calvin Coolidge has attended the dinner.