But after two serious and often fiery debates, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney traded jokes and gentle jibes Thursday night at the Alfred E. Smith charity dinner in New York, where presidential candidates traditionally take a break from the political trail and use humor to lighten the moment.
How'd they do? Well, their jokes won't make it to the comedy hall of fame, but they did let fly with some funny lines that provided a refreshing change from the campaign's harsh tone. And they showed that, blessedly, they don't always take themselves too seriously.
Romney, who attended with his wife Ann, made fun of his uppercrust image and his reputation for living a life of privilege. The candidate, wearing a white tie and tails as did Obama and the other men who attended the formal dinner, said, "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 finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house."
Romney said, "Of course, we're down to the final months of the president's term. As President Obama surveys the Waldorf banquet room with everybody in white tie and finery you have to wonder what he's thinking: 'So little time, so much to redistribute.'"
For his part, Obama noted that "Mitt" is actually Romney's middle name and added: "I wish I could use my middle name." It's Hussein.
The president also said, "Earlier today I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown."
Earlier Thursday, Obama had taped "The Daily Show" with comedian Jon Stewart, and they also traded jokes. At one point, Stewart asked Obama, "How many times a week does [Vice President Joe] Biden show up in a wet bathing suit?" Obama laughed and quipped that he has put a stop to the practice but added that Biden "looks pretty good" in swimwear.
However, Obama's appearance, taped in two seven-minute segments, was more serious than expected, and the president made some news.
Stewart asked why the administraton seemed "confused" in responding to the terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador. Administration officials initially described the attacks as a reaction to an Internet video that made fun of the prophet Muhammad.
Obama said, "We weren't confused about the fact that four Americans had been killed. I wasn't confused about the fact that we needed to ramp up diplomatic security around the world right after it happened. I wasn't confused about the fact that we had to investigate exactly what happened so it gets fixed. And I wasn't confused about the fact that we're going to hunt down whoever did it."
Stewart noted that the administration's reaction was not "optimal." Obama replied, "Here's what I'll say: When four Americans get kiilled, it's not optimal. We're going to fix it. All of it."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook and Twitter.