Gibbs says he’ll serve Obama better from outside

February 25, 2011

Robert Gibbs is resigning from his role as President Obama’s official spokesman in order to speak more effectively for Obama.

“The best service I can provide this president is, for the next couple of years, outside this building,” said Gibbs, who announced Wednesday that he would leave his press secretary job in early February. He will then hit the lucrative speaking circuit and become a paid consultant to the Obama reelection campaign.

The resignation of Gibbs is further evidence that the 2012 presidential campaign has already begun and that Obama, who lacks the numerous surrogates of past presidents, needs to deploy Gibbs to the front lines of the public debate. Gibbs will be unchained from the government salary and decorum expected from the press room podium, especially in a White House that has an officially stated disdain for partisan politics. Obama’s longtime attack dog can finally bare his teeth.

Gibbs’s move also exposes the shortcomings of the room he is leaving, and the decreased political significance of a podium-bound official voice in a raucous virtual age.

On Wednesday afternoon, around the time Republicans exuberantly took over the House, Gibbs arrived at his daily briefing in a charcoal pinstriped suit and blue pastel tie dotted with commas — an appropriate pattern for the famously long-winded spokesman. Fielding a question about whether he might feel less encumbered without the podium in front of him, he grinned and jokingly stepped away from his lectern.

Gibbs insisted that his aim in leaving his White House post was not “to be freed up to say a series of things that I might not otherwise say.” But later, when asked when he might begin wading into the combat of cable television, Gibbs expressed no reluctance. “I assume that I will have an opportunity to continue to be an advocate for the decisions that are being made or have been made in this White House,” he said. “And I am certainly happy to do that.”

“Robert has been a tremendously fierce advocate for the president, but the official capacity of the podium and the White House does have its constraints,” said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “He’ll have the opportunity to be probably more stark in some of his comments about whatever Republicans are doing.”

He’ll also have the opportunity to get paid. “He’s had a six-year stretch now where basically he’s been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay,” Obama said in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday. Gibbs’s White House salary is $172,200 a year. Last spring, David Axelrod, who is also preparing to leave the administration to go to work for the reelection campaign, said that Gibbs, who was then considering moving into the Oval Office as a senior adviser, was a “long-term associate,” and “not a hired gun.”

Times have changed. On Wednesday, Gibbs said that while Obama would be the last political candidate he would ever work for, he would not rule out other avenues of income, including representing corporations — “if that’s something that I decided to do and I was comfortable with who those clients were.”

Gibbs is certainly not the first former press secretary to cash in on his time as the face of the administration. In the George W. Bush orbit, Dana Perino is a familiar face on cable and Ari Fleischer has opened his own consulting shop. From the Clinton universe, Dee Dee Myers has been a Vanity Fair contributing editor and a regular cable voice, while Mike McCurry works for a big government relations firm in Washington.

None of them had as tight a relationship with their presidents as Gibbs has with Obama, or such unfettered access to high-level information. Asked to assess his performance, Gibbs said that unlike most people in Washington, he didn’t relish talking about himself — though he then went on to do so.

Gibbs said that he preferred to censor his full knowledge of White House business, rather than having to ignorantly go before the press or unknowingly mislead reporters (“I haven’t done that,” he said, knocking the podium’s wood). He said that while he wished he had done some things differently, he thought he had done well overall. (Sometimes prickly and thin-skinned, Gibbs has been known to speak insultingly to reporters and once patronizingly compared a radio reporter to his young son.)

“Yeah,” he said, when asked if he considered his tenure a success. He later added, more modestly, that “I play a very small part in a big operation.”

Gibbs has helmed the press shop at a time when new media outlets have continued to come into their own and begun elbowing out networks and print publications as the dominant news sources. “We’ve tried more stuff on social networking that I think we’ll continue,” he said, and disagreed with questioners who suggested that the growing White House preference for virtual communication via Twitter signaled an intention to go around the briefing room. When his office tweets something, Gibbs pointed out to the assembled reporters, “you guys have written off that.”

“All this stuff moves much faster,” he said, predicting that the new ways of communicating “will endure,” though he also assured the assembled reporters that “I think the briefing will endure.”

Jim Jordan, a Democratic operative who brought Gibbs onto John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign (both men eventually left the Kerry team), said that the podium job “has gotten harder and harder with the splintering of media and the public’s attention span. It’s harder to generate coherent media messages. It’s harder to reach critical mass.”

Still, he said, “Robert’s political tombstone will read [that] he served President Obama well.”

On Wednesday, Gibbs responded to the usual barrage of questions, from queries about the debt ceiling to Pakistan to coming changes in the White House economic team. He didn’t seem exactly broken up about his departure. As he headed back to his office after the briefing, a reporter called out, “Will you miss us?”

Gibbs turned around and said, with a smirk, “I will miss you starting right now.”

horowitzj@washpost.com

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