US media were all a-titter Friday after President Barack Obama and White House challenger Mitt Romney attended a dinner billed as a light-hearted break from their political battle, trading carefully-scripted jokes and yucking it up for the cameras as if they were old pals.
“Amid Brutal Campaign, a Respite. With Jokes” quipped a headline on The New York Times’ website. Obama and Romney “took a break from their often rancorous campaigns to poke fun” NBC television commented. “President Obama, Mitt Romney Win Laughs” at dinner, the Politico website clucked.
Indeed media old and new across the country were filled with photos like these, video clips and text stories delighting in the apparent irony of the White House rivals, earlier this week very much on the attack in a tense televised debate, now in uproarious, backslapping gregariousness over each other.
And the candidates’ tightly-scripted lines managed to package subtle political subtexts in pointed and self-deprecating humor, making sure their jokes also had value-added punch as political sound-bites.
“It’s nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house," joked Romney, clad in white tie and formal dinner jacket. He is by far the wealthier of the two men and has taken heat over his relatively cushy lifestyle that has many average Americans wondering if he can relate to their needs.
“I felt really well-rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate," Obama said, a reference to the October 3 debate between the two men, widely regarded as a dismal, lackluster effort on his part.
Straight-faced, Romney told the audience that his campaign strategy was to "find the biggest available straw man, and then just mercilessly attack it." He paused, and then delivered the punch line: "Big Bird didn't even see it coming,” a reference to his pledge to cut funding for the Sesame Street children’s show.
“By the way,” he added, “In the spirit of 'Sesame Street,' the president's remarks are brought to you tonight by the letter O and the number 16 trillion" – the ballpark figure of the US national debt which critics accuse Obama of exacerbating.
Obama countered with a reference to the irritated reaction his opponent received during a trip to London over the summer when he questioned whether the British capital were prepared to host the games.
“Of course, world affairs are a challenge for every candidate. After my foreign trip in 2008, I was attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our allies overseas. And I have to say, I’m impressed with how well Governor Romney has avoided that problem.”