President Barack Obama “appreciated the spirit of Mr. Wilmore’s expressions” used at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and insisted that “any reading of his comments makes clear he was not using the president as the butt of a joke,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted today at his press briefing.

Wilmore has been under fire, in some quarters, for the way in which he wound  up his speech at the annual Nerd Prom. The Comedy Central late-night star said that when he was growing up, “a black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team — and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world, words alone can do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if I’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my n*gga. You did it.”

Among those blasting Wilmore was WaPo’s editorial board member Jonathan Capehart, who is black. “Sure, there were and are blacks who loved what Wilmore said,” he wrote this morning. “They think that by ‘keeping it 100,’ a latter-day ‘keeping it real,’ Wilmore expressed the undeniable pride African Americans have for Obama, the first lady and everything the first family means and represents to them. But the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner was neither Wilmore’s barbershop nor his momma’s house. Obama is president of the United States and should have been accorded the respect that comes with the office — especially by someone who considers himself family.”

And Politico, in posting video of  “Larry Wilmore’s Full Remarks at The White House Correspondents’ Dinner” cuts off after “To live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world, words alone can do me no justice.”

Asked today about Obama’s reax to Wilmore’s speech final punchline, Earnest said: “I’m confident that Mr. Wilmore used the word by design. He was seeking to be provocative.”

Wilmore’s closing line wasn’t the only one that caused the Hinkley Hilton crowd to set up and take notice, though it was by far his most provocative. He’d opened his address telling the largely white crowd, “Welcome to Negro Night,” and joking that Fox News would likely describe the clambake, in which both speakers were black men, as “two thugs” interrupting an elegant event in Washington.

“Just by nature of the engagement, that’s a tough job, following the president of the United States,” Earnest, a master of understatement, said at this afternoon’s briefing. “President Obama also over the years has shown himself to be rather adept at delivering a speech that consists primarily of one- or two-liners, and the president enjoys that opportunity. So the point is that Mr. Wilmore had a difficult job that he was facing on Saturday.”

Or, in round numbers: It’s unfair to expect a professional stand-up comic to be able to keep pace with the comedy set of the President of the United States at his annual roast.

Really?

Earnest noted that Wilmore is not the first who has been accused of crossing the line at a WHCD. The other person who most often comes to mind is the guy who used to have Wilmore’s time slot on Comedy Central: Stephen Colbert.

“So it’s not the first time that we’ve had a conversation like this, in which these kinds of concerns have been raised or expressed,” Earnest said. “Look, I had an opportunity to speak to the president about this briefly this morning, and he said that he appreciated the spirit of the sentiments that Mr. Wilmore expressed. He ended his speech by saying that he couldn’t put into words the pride that he felt in the president.”

One reporter wondered whether Wilmore’s choice of words had opened the floodgate for Obama’s critics to use similar language about the president.
“I have no idea what impact Larry Wilmore’s speech is gonna have on the president’s critics, and I don’t think I’m gonna spend much time worrying about it,” Earnest said.