Robert Gibbs: How the press secretary changed, and who will follow him

February 26, 2011

With the departure of Robert Gibbs, senior administration officials are expanding their search for a new White House press secretary to include a dangerous breed: working journalists.

Advisers have been compiling a fairly predictable list of Democratic spokesmen who could assume the “podium job,” as it’s known. There are internal front-runners — Vice President Biden’s communications director, Jay Carney, and deputy press secretary Bill Burton are at the top of the list — and other candidates, including another deputy, Josh Earnest, whom Gibbs asked to be added for consideration. A more senior White House adviser, Stephanie Cutter, had been asked to apply but declined, and she is now involved in the search process. There are a number of external contenders, as well, including Democratic operative Karen Finney, a frequent paid television commentator.

But further down the wish list that officials have compiled so far are some reporters, mainly ones who appear on television, people involved in the process said. Officials acknowledge it is a long shot that one of them will make the final cut: There are logistical considerations, such as contracts, and the all-important question of trust. But the mere fact that working journalists are being discussed for a job so visible is a sign of change within a White House that has typically been allergic to it.

Overall, the list of candidates to succeed Gibbs has expanded since William Daley was announced as the incoming chief of staff, several people familiar with the process said. Among the most pressing goals: including candidates who can repair relations with the White House press corps, which suffered under Gibbs, and to at least consider a woman to balance the perception of an administration that is overwhelmingly male.

The problem, according to several who are familiar with the search, is that the talent pool is extremely shallow.

“I really do think the president needs somebody up there who has credibility with the media and who’s also an insider who knows what’s going on,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said. By definition, the roster is limited to people who currently work at the White House; almost no one from the outside has penetrated the workings of the place since President Obama took office two years ago.

Brazile said she had recently called Burton to give him her thumbs-up, saying that as deputy he “has grown in the job.” Other officials, who would not speak for the record, said Carney, 45, has a slight advantage over Burton, 33, based largely on stature.

The search process, which will be helmed by incoming senior adviser David Plouffe, will look hard at past problems. Gibbs played an unusual role as press secretary, enjoying virtually unfettered access to the president and wearing dual hats as a spokesman and top adviser in a way that his successor probably will not. So in some ways, officials are redefining the job as they fill it.

Gibbs also leaves some hard feelings in his wake. That means the next press secretary will be charged with trying to rebuild a rapport with the White House press corps, a process that “has actually been underway for several months,” one senior administration official said.

White House reporters painted a picture of Gibbs as intimately knowledgable of administration workings but at the same time infuriatingly unavailable when the White House’s input was required on deadline. The reason for that inaccessibility, they said, had less to do with any malice the prickly press secretary felt toward reporters. Instead he was swamped with work, stuck in high-level meetings or, according to some reporters, simply disorganized. (Gibbs spoke last year about his close relationship as an adviser to the president and was widely expected to abandon the podium to “go inside,” but he did not. There is debate among several sources with knowledge of the process about why: Either he felt uncomfortable with the lack of portfolio or was denied the new role.)

“Even when he could shape the story, and shape it more positively for the administration, he was incommunicado,” said one White House reporter who, like several other briefing room colleagues, declined to speak for the record and complained about unreturned e-mails and phone calls.

“He was always incredibly overworked,” said another White House reporter, “and I found myself doing most of my reporting through other people.”

According to several reporters, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer picked up some of the workload traditionally associated with a press secretary. Although administration officials acknowledged that Gibbs’s advisory role was an extra burden that prevented him from being readily available, they also argued that Pfeiffer was purposefully put on the ground floor of the West Wing with reporters because it was always the administration’s strategy that the top communications officials help out one another.

Other, more junior staffers were also empowered to return calls and handle requests when Gibbs was busy. In the first incarnation, the White House was stacked with chatty senior advisers — namely, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod — who made a habit of calling reporters. The new leadership is not as loose-lipped. Plouffe returns phone calls sparingly and while Daley has long-standing ties with many Washington reporters, he is more disciplined than Emanuel in how he communicates with them.

“The volume of the job requires that it not just be one person,” one senior administration official said.

Gibbs, a veteran campaign operative, had testy on-air exchanges with reporters in the briefing room, comparing an American Urban Radio Networks reporter to his young child and often assuming a sanctimonious posture. But several White House reporters said that Gibbs became pleasant, or at least refreshingly blunt and candid, in one-on-one encounters. The problem was that those were few and far between, given his busy schedule, but also, as one reporter put it, because of the time spent “fawning” over the New York Times.

At the lectern, Gibbs’s tendency to speak in grammatically contorted sentences challenged reporters looking for an intelligible quote or sound bite, so did his habit of promising to get back to reporters when he didn’t see fit to provide an answer.

Those answers rarely proved forthcoming, and Gibbs was embarrassed in a briefing when a reporter asked for answers to questions the press secretary had promised, and failed, to deliver on. Reporters complained that Gibbs all but vanished during foreign trips, and several talked about a time when he stood up the press corps, which had organized a dinner at an expensive restaurant with him in Prague. When members of the press corps bumped into him later that evening on the Charles Bridge, he acted as if his no-show was no big deal. (Gibbs later said that the slight was not intentional and that he had been delayed.)

But toward the end of his tenure, reporters noticed a change in Gibbs’s approach. He began sending e-mails to reporters with the subject line “Can I help?,” which, according to one reporter, took colleagues by surprise. During the president’s trip to India, he came to the rescue of White House press corps members who were suddenly told by Indian security officials that they could not attend a meeting between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Gibbs argued that if the Indians prevented all of the previously agreed upon reporters from entering the room, he would pull Obama out of the bilateral meeting.

According to one administration official, the detente with reporters was in fact led by Gibbs, who began conducting off-the-record lunches with correspondents and arranging for the president to pop up in the back of Air Force One.

horowitzj@washpost.com

kornbluta@washpost.com

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