White House Correspondents’ Dinner: Biden delivers remarks as event returns after pandemic hiatus

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“I’m so thrilled to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than mine,” Biden said in his opening comments.

“We had a horrible plague followed by two years of Covid,” he said. “Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year, now it really would have been a real coup if that had happened. »

The event marked Biden’s first appearance at the crowded Washington event since taking office. As the first president to address dinner attendees in six years, he underscored his support for democracy and press freedom.

The Saturday night dinner, which took place inside the Washington Hilton and was expected to host more than 2,500 guests, came back strong after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The program for the event was hosted by “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah and featured Biden delivering comedic remarks. The White House Correspondents Association, which hosts the annual black-tie event, honored several journalists for their contributions.

Biden also poked fun at his age, joking that he remembered the start of the annual dinner, with President Calvin Coolidge speaking in 1924. “I had just been elected to the United States Senate,” did he declare.

The president said that when he was elected, Noah on his show called Biden ‘America’s New Dad’, to which he said, ‘Let me tell you something mate, I’m flattered someone calls a “new” anything. »

Covid anxieties

Inside the gala, negative Covid-19 tests were required for entry and masks were voluntary — just as they are in most of Washington.

But there were growing concerns that Saturday night’s event could lead to Covid cases among revelers, after dozens of attendees – including some of Biden’s cabinet officials – who attended another party from Washington, the Gridiron Dinner, tested positive weeks ago.

Covid cases in Washington are now stable after rising following the decline of the wave of the Omicron variant, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, decided to withdraw from Saturday’s dinner after a personal assessment risks.

“In general, the risk is low, but I made a personal assessment. I’m 81 and if I get infected I have a much higher risk,” Fauci said earlier this week.

Saturday’s event also came after two senior Biden officials recently tested positive for Covid-19.

Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive on Tuesday and remains asymptomatic. And the White House’s top communications official, Kate Bedingfield, tested positive on Friday and is showing mild symptoms. The president was not considered a close contact in either case.

But Biden’s decision to continue to attend the dinner, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week, was “a risk assessment and a decision he made on a personal basis.” And Biden intended to go, she said, to express his support for a free press. First Lady Jill Biden was also present.

The White House said ahead of the event that the president would take extra precautions to avoid catching Covid-19, including skipping the meal portion of the schedule. Biden was seated on the dais, away from the crowded dining room, and was not expected to attend receptions before or after.

During his speech, Biden also mocked Fox News and took note of the Covid-related requirements to attend the event.

“If you are at home watching this and wondering how to do this, just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They are all there. Vaccinated and boosted. Everyone,” he said to thunderous applause.

Adjusting the tone of Biden’s comedy set

The president had a rare chance for his comedic chops to shine during remarks over dinner on Saturday night, but the occasion arguably came at a difficult time for the nation of laughter.

The economic recovery from Covid-19 stumbled in the first quarter of 2022, with figures this week revealing that gross domestic product shrank at an annual rate of 1.4% in the first three months of the year – marking the worst quarter for US economy since spring 2020. Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine. And as his party heads into a all-important midterm season, Biden’s approval rating has stagnated – with a recent The News poll on Biden’s handling of the presidency finding that 41% of Americans approve of the job he does, with 54% disapproving.

Biden acknowledged on Saturday the difficulty he had in getting his agenda through, while reminiscing about his big promises of being able to walk down the aisle, saying, “I came to power with an ambitious agenda, and I expected that he faces fierce opposition in the Senate. I was just hoping it would be Republicans.

The speech also came at a time when the US political environment remains extremely polarized, arguably more divided than in 2016 – the last time a president gave a speech at the dinner.

Although a more partisan stalemate is possible, Biden said he was confident he could sort out the issue in a second term.

“We could end up with more partisan deadlocks,” he said. “But I’m confident we can get there in my last six years as president. »

Of Republicans’ use of the phrase “Let’s go Brandon” against Biden, he said, “Republicans seem to be supporting a guy. A guy named Brandon. He is having a very good year, and I am quite happy for him.

Biden’s speech had been in the works for a few weeks, officials said, and was not finished Friday. But early in the writing process, the president told his team that he envisioned a speech that went beyond a mere amalgamation of single sentences, jokes and gags.

The White House found a long list of jokes among its staff to create Saturday night’s set. Officials said Chief of Staff Ron Klain, members of the communications team and others inside the White House sent jokes to Biden speechwriters for review. Rob Flaherty, the director of digital strategy, and Dan Cluchey, a senior speechwriter — both considered one of Biden’s funniest staffers — sent in material.

Biden needed to do some testing to get an idea of ​​delivery and timing, a person familiar with the matter said.

Biden used the appearance to loudly assert his belief in a free press after his predecessor – who skipped the annual dinner throughout his tenure – called reporters “enemies of the people”.

“At home, the poison runs through our democracy,” he said, but “What is clear… You, the free press, matter more than you ever have in the last century. »

As he handed over the mic to Noah, Biden told him, “Now you have to roast the President of the United States. And unlike Moscow, you won’t go to jail. »

This story was updated with additional information on Saturday.

Kevin Liptak and Ariel Edwards-Levy of The News contributed to this report.

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