What Obama And Romney’s Al Smith Dinner Speeches Tell Us About The Election

It’s a great coup for the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, named for the Progressive, wet politician and first Catholic presidential candidate, that its annual fundraising dinner has become a mandatory stop on the presidential campaign trail. And it’s good for us for reasons of politics, if not of comedy, that we get to see President Obama and Mitt Romney show off what they think they need to lock down in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.

First, there’s President Obama, who chose to focus his jokes for the evening on the most ridiculous news stories of the campaign cycle in an implicit critique of the media and a funny, likable act of self-deprecation:

Perhaps most importantly, Obama went confidently after his performance in the first debate. “I felt well-rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate,” he joked. And he went on to “apologize to Chris Matthews. Four years ago I gave him a thrill up his leg. This time, I gave him a stroke.” He made the crack that a lot of other people made that evening, telling the crowd that “I learned there are worse things that can happen to you on your anniversary than forgetting to buy a gift.” It was a comprehensively self-aware dissection of his own performance, one that was aimed at dispelling lingering doubts about where his head was in the first debate, and reassuring the audience that he was fired up for the final debate before the election.

Obama’s other jokes were a sly tour through the campaign’s most frivolous moments. “I went shopping at some stores in Midtown,” he said of how he spent his day in New York. “I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in midtown,” a riff of Romney’s explanations about his friends who were NFL and NASCAR owners. Obama explained that he stopped by “The House That Ruth Built, though he really did not build that. I hope everybody’s aware of that.” He explained that though the campaign season felt endless, “Paul Ryan assured me we’ve only been running for two hours and 57 minutes.” The closest he came to an attempt to score substantive points was a riff about the economy. “I don’t have a joke here,” he said in a hanging punchline. “I just thought it would be useful to remind everybody that the unemployment rate’s at the lowest level since I took office.”

Romney, by contrast, spent more time on attempts to land hits on Obama:

He started out by basically explaining that he was Jack Donaghy, telling the audience. “A campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes. Blue jeans in the morning, perhaps, suits for a lunch fundraiser, sport coat for dinner, but it’s nice to relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house.” But that and jokes about the fact that Romney doesn’t drink were about as far as Romney was willing to reflect on himself. His task for the evening didn’t seem to be to make himself likable, but to make Obama seem suspect.

“It’s taken New York’s highest spiritual authority to bring us back on our best behavior,” Romney said of Cardinal Dolan, who leveraged himself into both party’s nominating conventions this summer, and suggesting that the Obama-Biden team had in some way overstepped during the debates. “I was actually hoping the President would bring Joe Biden along this evening, because he’ll laugh at anything.” He suggested that Dolan might punish Obama for his stances on contraceptive coverage. Romney said Obama’s perspective on the room of people who ponied up to support Catholic Charities was “So little time. So much to redistribute.” He suggested that the administration was desperate in its seizing on improving jobs numbers: “He knows how to seize the moment, this president, and already has a new campaign slogan: You’re Betther Off Now Than You Were Four Weeks Ago.” And Romney’s jab at the media was petulant rather than meta. “My job is to lay out a positive vision for the future of the country, and their job is to make sure that no one else finds out about it,” he said to considerable applause.

When, at the end of his routine, Romney turned sincere, he sounded ashamed of it. “Don’t tell anyone I said so, but our 44th president has many gifts and a beautiful family that would make anyone proud,” he said. “In our country, you can oppose someone in politics and make a confident case against their policies without any ill will. That’s how it is for me. There’s more to life than politics.” For the next three weeks, though, that’s not really true for these two men. And it’s telling that Obama feels like he can go positive and self-deprecating, while Romney still needs to try to scare people about his policies.