By Maegan Vazquez and Sarah Fortinsky, CNN
President Joe Biden took a dig at his predecessor Saturday at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, while also joking about the press, the GOP and the continued existence of the event altogether.
“I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have,” Biden said during his initial 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 that would really have been a real coup if that occurred.”
The event marked Biden’s first appearance at the widely attended Washington event since taking office. As the first President to address the dinner’s attendees in six years, he stressed his support for democracy and the free press.
Saturday night’s dinner, which took place inside the Washington Hilton and was expected to host more than 2,500 guests, returned in full force after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The event’s program was headlined 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 remembers when the annual dinner began, with President Calvin Coolidge speaking in 1924. “I had just been elected to the United States Senate,” he said.
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 pal, I’m flattered anybody would call me a ‘new’ anything.”
Inside the gala, negative Covid-19 tests were required for entry and masks were voluntary — just as they are throughout most of Washington.
But there had been growing concerns that Saturday night’s event could lead to Covid cases among partygoers, after dozens of attendees — including some of Biden’s Cabinet officials — who attended a different Washington party, the Gridiron Dinner, tested positive weeks ago.
Cases of Covid in Washington are now steady after rising following the decline of the Omicron variant’s wave, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the President’s chief medical adviser, decided to bow out of Saturday’s dinner after a personal risk assessment.
“In general, the risk is low, but I made a personal assessment. I’m 81 years old, and if I get infected, I have a much higher risk,” Fauci said earlier this week.
Saturday’s event also came after two top 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 experiencing mild symptoms. The President was not considered a close contact in either case.
But Biden’s decision to still 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 was intent on going, she said, to express his support for a free press. First lady Jill Biden also attended.
The White House said before the event that the President would be taking extra precautions to prevent catching Covid-19, including skipping the meal portion of the program. Biden sat on the dais, away from the crowded dining room, and wasn’t expected to attend receptions before or afterward.
During his speech, Biden also poked fun at Fox News and made note of the Covid-related requirements to attend the event.
“If you’re at home watching this and you’re wondering how to do that, just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They’re all here. Vaccinated and boosted. All of them,” he said to resounding applause.
Adjusting the tone for Biden’s comedic set
The President had a rare chance for his comedic chops to shine Saturday night during remarks at the dinner, but the opportunity arguably came at a tough moment for the country to have a laugh.
The economic recovery from Covid-19 has stumbled in the first quarter of 2022, with numbers revealing this week that gross domestic product declined at an annual rate of 1.4% during the first three months of the year — marking the worst quarter for the American economy since the spring of 2020. Russia is continuing to wage war with Ukraine. And as his party heads into a highly consequential midterms season, Biden’s approval rating has stagnated — with a recent CNN Poll of Polls average on Biden’s handling of the presidency finding that 41% of Americans approve of the job he’s doing, with 54% disapproving.
Biden on Saturday acknowledged the difficulty he’s had in getting his agenda across, while also touching on his grand promises of being able to reach across the aisle, saying, “I came to office with an ambitious agenda, and I expected it to face stiff opposition in the Senate. I just hoped it would be from Republicans.”
The speech also took place at a time when the American political environment remains extremely polarized, arguably more divided than in 2016 — the last time a president delivered a speech at the dinner.
While more partisan gridlock is possible, Biden said he was confident he could sort it out in a second term.
“We may end up with more partisan gridlock,” he said. “But I’m confident we can work it out during my remaining six years in the presidency.”
On Republicans’ use of the phrase “Let’s go Brandon” against Biden, he said, “Republicans seem to support one fella. Some guy named Brandon. He’s having a really good year, and I’m kind of happy for him.”
Biden’s speech had been in the works for a few weeks, officials said, and wasn’t finished as of Friday. But at the outset of the writing process, the President told his team he envisioned an address that went beyond just an amalgamation of one-liners, wisecracks and gags.
The White House sourced a long list jokes from across his staff to craft Saturday night’s set. Officials said the chief of staff Ron Klain, members of the communications team and others inside the White House sent jokes to Biden’s speechwriters for consideration. Rob Flaherty, the director of digital strategy, and Dan Cluchey, a senior speechwriter — both said to be among Biden’s funniest staffers — sent material.
Biden was expected to do a few practice runs to get a feel for the delivery and timing, a person familiar with the matter said.
Biden used the appearance to loudly affirm his belief in a free press after his predecessor — who skipped the yearly dinner throughout his time in office — labeled reporters the “enemy of the people.”
“At home, poison is running through our democracy,” he said, but “What’s clear … You, the free press, matter more than you ever did in the last century.”
As he yielded the mic to Noah, Biden said to him, “Now you get to roast the President of the United States. And unlike in Moscow, you won’t go to jail.”
This story has been updated with additional information Saturday.
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CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed to this report.