Biden set to deliver remarks at White House Correspondents' Dinner

By Maegan Vazquez, CNN

    (CNN) -- President Joe Biden is set to attend the White House Correspondents' dinner on Saturday, marking his first appearance at the widely attended Washington event since taking office.

Saturday night's dinner, which will take place inside the Washington Hilton and host more than 2,500 guests, returns in full force after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The event's program will be headlined by "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah and will feature Biden delivering comedic remarks. The White House Correspondents Association, which hosts the annual black tie event, will honor several journalists for their contributions.

Biden's appearance will be the first time a US president has attended the dinner in six years.

Covid anxieties

Inside the gala, negative Covid-19 tests will be required for entry and masks will be voluntary -- just as they are throughout most of Washington.

But there have 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, has 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 comes 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, is "a risk assessment and a decision he made on a personal basis." And Biden is intent on going, she said, to express his support for a free press. First lady Jill Biden is also expected to still attend.

The White House says the President will be taking extra precautions to prevent catching Covid-19, including skipping the meal portion of the program. Biden will also "likely" wear a mask when he's not delivering the speech, Psaki said on Friday. He'll be at the dinner for roughly 90 minutes and sit on the dais, away from the crowded dining room, and won't attend receptions before or afterward.

Biden last tested negative for Covid-19 on Thursday.

Adjusting the tone for Biden's comedic set

The President has a rare chance for his comedic chops to shine Saturday night when he delivers remarks at the dinner, but the opportunity arguably comes 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.

The speech also takes 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.

Biden's speech has been in the works for a few weeks, officials have 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.

Jokes about himself, the press and the GOP are anticipated, but Biden also intends to use 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."

The White House has 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 -- have been sending material.

Biden is expected to do a few practice runs of his speech to get a feel for the delivery and timing, a person familiar with the matter said.

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