Transcript of Interview With White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs

Obama's press secretary talks about the President's choices for reporter questions and the use of teleprompter.
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009; 8:26 PM

Welcome to Voices Of Power, we are here at the White House with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Thank you for joining us Robert.

MR. GIBBS: How are you?

MS. ROMANO: I'm good. And we are delighted that you can join our series Voice of Power.

MR. GIBBS: Thanks for having me.

MS. ROMANO: You have been in democratic consulting communications for your whole career. At least eight of those years you were counterpunching a republican White House. Now, you are the White House.

MR. GIBBS: Right.

MS. ROMANO: You are the voice of the people. How does that feel to you? How is this different?

MR. GIBBS: Well, it's you know, I get asked questions every day, and I have to represent an administration that is now running a government. It's obviously a fundamentally different job than working in a political campaign. I have got to be a little bit more careful at what I do and what I say. I try to still keep a sense of humor, but I understand that I'm one of the public faces of an administration and that the American people want and deserve to get out of me and this administration an update on the steps that we're taking to go from recession to recovery, and that's a much different bar to meet each day than throwing bombs in a political campaign.

MS. ROMANO: How do you prepare for these briefings every day?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I spend a lot of time reading each day before the briefing. There is a team of folks, including Bill Burton and Reid Cherlin that help put together a briefing book for me each day that changes every day

I'm fortunate enough to have access to anybody in the administration so that if there is an economic story, I can get somebody on the phone or have a back and forth Q&A with somebody that more fully understands either the policy decision or the implications.

So, the truth is, it's just a lot of it's a lot of preparation before the briefing each day, so that when I go out there I sound at least remotely intelligent about the workings of our government.

MS. ROMANO: So, is it sort of a version of the murder boards?

MR. GIBBS: It is. It's fairly intense. It changes each day.

And, you know, the truth is, some days it's a little counterintuitive. If there is not a dominant political story, it can actually be a busier day getting prepared than if there was one story line that I knew everybody was going to ask about.

MS. ROMANO: How so?

MR. GIBBS: Well, then there is basically one series and set of questions --you can prepare for.

If there are seven or eight stories that you think will each get a few questions, then you've got to be much more conversant in a broad number of topics.

I will say that one thing is that I come to work each day knowing that I will walk out there and I could get asked anything anything by any reporter, and my charge is to be prepared to answer as best as possible what that question is, understanding--you know, today's briefing was a good example. Right after a budget question, Chuck [Todd] at NBC followed up with the Post Office going bankrupt. So, there--there's a whole series of questions that you could get at any time and you have to be as--as prepared as you can.

MS. ROMANO: You had a very combative relationship with reporters during the campaign. Now, is this

MR. GIBBS: I don't agree with that, but go ahead and finish your question. Maybe I guess this belies the nature that I didn't have a combative relationship.

MS. ROMANO: Well, was this my imagination, or did you scale it back a little when you took to the podium? Because it seemed like initially you were much more reserved.

MR. GIBBS: Reserved how?

MS. ROMANO: Very careful about what you were saying, not too much back and forth, not sarcastic, not too much in attack mode.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I'd like to think I haven't been in attack mode maybe except one or two statements, but most of those are in response.

I've always thought I had a good relationship with the press. My job is to provide information to a group of working journalists that have a job to do just like I do: to provide them information and understanding about the decisions that the President has in front of him each day and why he makes the decisions that he makes.

MS. ROMANO: So, should you be taking on the Rush Limbaughs of the world from the podium?

You've gotten a little push back on that.

MR. GIBBS: Well, you know, it's interesting, I got asked about Rush Limbaugh. I got asked about Dick Cheney. I'm happy to begin to ignore questions that I don't want to answer. I'm not sure the press would think that's a good idea. I get asked questions about CNBC. I get--you know.

Look, one of the things that's inherent in my job is I don't get to choose what questions I'm asked. I think that's the beauty of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, and that's fine with me.




MS. ROMANO: Let's talk about your relationship with the President. You go back with Obama to 2004.

MR. GIBBS: Mm-hmm.

MS. ROMANO: And everyone considers you part of the inner most inner circle, and Pete Rouse described your relationship as sort of locker room camaraderie and you tease each other and heated arguments. Does that still go on today?

MR. GIBBS: Look, I pride myself on having the type of relationship with him where I can kind of sense what mood he's in. I can try to figure out if--if I need to make him laugh or if I need to make fun of myself in order to lighten up the mood in something. I certainly played that role during the campaign.

But I also and I think the President, when he was a senator, asked me very specifically, he said, "Your job is to give me the best advice you can, regardless of whether you think I want to hear that advice." And I want to make sure that when I go home every day, usually after a 15 or 16 hour day, that I feel like I've given him, as the President of the United States, my best advice based on my opinion, whether or not it's something he may or may not want to hear. That's--that's what I think my job is, and I think he respects that.

MS. ROMANO: So, you don't pull your punches even though he's President.

MR. GIBBS: No, I don't you know, the truth is if I did, I wouldn't be here long because he's adamant in meetings, and in private you know--let's just say this: This is a big White House with a lot of people. You could fill ten White Houses with people that just wanted to nod at everything he said at a meeting, but that's not who he expects to have in his administration. He wants to know what people think. That goes from me as the Press Secretary throughout any person that does policy or works here.

MS. ROMANO: So, he actually has surrounded himself with a lot of people that are kind of counterintuitive to his cool headedness. Is that on purpose? Is that what you're saying?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think he just wants and expects people to give unvarnished advice, that they do so again regardless of whether they think he wants to hear it. And he expects and I think actually in many ways enjoys, if there is a policy decision to be made, watching two people with opposing views debate out and reason their own positions.

I've been in meetings where I've either watched this or taken part in a policy discussion. And I think the President, he both enjoys and gets a lot of benefit out of watching somebody defend their position because if that's the position of the President, then he's going to have to defend that position.

So, I think some of this goes back to him teaching law school, but I also think it's the way he likes to make decisions, and he likes to surround people that--that can both push him and push themselves.

It was very interesting, he said something in a meeting the other day. He said, "I think it's important to engage your critics," and he said, "because not only will you occasionally change their mind but, more importantly, sometimes they will change your mind." And I think that is an important perspective for the President of the United States to have. He has a BlackBerry, so he hears from different people. He gets letters each day from all over the country,that he gets to read about the trials and tribulations of the American people in a very personal way.

He wants access to that information and those opinions, not filtered through me or through somebody else but directly with the American people. CHAPTER 2 OUT


MS. ROMANO: President Obama turned the long standing press conference tradition on its head last night by bypassing the major newspapers. What do you think about the reaction to that?

MR. GIBBS: I've got to tell you, I haven't seen a lot of the reaction and haven't focused on it. I mean, I think what the President has done is, both now and in the transition, is call on a wide variety of people and bring people that aren't used to covering a President of the United States into the East Room to ask questions of me or ask questions of him and this administration, and I think that's healthy for democracy.

I think calling on Stars and Stripes is a good thing. I think calling on outlets that probably have rarely raised their hand because they didn't think they'd ever get called on, and now there is a President of the United States that's calling on them.

MS. ROMANO: How come you are giving some of these outlets a heads-up so they can prepare the question like they know they're going to be called on?

MR. GIBBS: Nobody last night got a heads-up that they were getting a question.

MS. ROMANO: Oh, is that right? Did you do that in the press conference before?

MR. GIBBS: You know, occasionally during the transition we would tell people┬┐that hat they were it's just I do that merely for the benefit of reporters so when their parents are watching, the delivery will be as smooth as the answer from the President.

MS. ROMANO: The teleprompter changed last night.

MR. GIBBS: Mm-hmm.

MS. ROMANO: What was that about that? It's a big jumbotron now.

MR. GIBBS: You know can I tell you this?


MR. GIBBS: I am absolutely amazed that anybody in America cares about who the President picks at a news conference or the mechanism by which he reads his prepared remarks. You know, I guess America is a wonderful country.

MS. ROMANO: You're saying this is all Washington Beltway stuff?

MR. GIBBS: I don't even know if it's that. I don't think I should implicate the many people that live in Washington.

MR. GIBBS: No, I you know, I don't think the President let me just say this: My historical research has demonstrated that the President is not the first to use prepared remarks nor the first to use a teleprompter.

MR. GIBBS: I think using the teleprompter last night was a way of talking directly to the American people.

I have joked that from now on, just so the President we could liven things up, that we're actually going to remove every third word, sort of like a Madlib, and he could add in there what he wants to tell people so that there would be a little bit more excitement in it.

MR. GIBBS: The President thought it was a good idea. CHAPTER 3 OUT


MS. ROMANO: Why did the President do The Tonight Show and ESPN in the middle of an economic crisis?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think well, the President wanted to talk to, and wants to talk to, as many people as he can directly about the challenges that we face. I don't think that a viewer that watch--is watching Jay Leno is any less affected by what's going on in this country right now economically than anybody else might.

So, it was an opportunity for the President to seek another audience to tell people what he was doing to help get the economy back on track. And, you know, I think, like millions of Americans, he filled out his NCAA brackets. I think it's kind of neat that the President of the United States is--on Thursday morning before the NCAA tournament, is doing what millions of Americans are doing in trying to figure out between the 7th seat and the 10th seat in the East Bracket who is going to move forward. I think it's pretty obvious the questions the games he got right and games he got wrong. I think it's safe to assume that the President didn't spend an inordinate amount of time picking those games.

MS. ROMANO: Do you think there was a little bit too much entertainment and levity because he seemed much more serious last night? I mean, did you did you have any role to play

MR. GIBBS: We took his Jay Leno gene out and we only--

MS. ROMANO: Okay. That's what I wanted to know.

MR. GIBBS: No, I mean, you know, this is a little bit about like the teleprompter. I'm a--change in Washington is seen only in some ways as good in the abstract, but I think we're happy that the President is getting a chance to do a lot of different things, and the American people are getting a chance to see it.

MS. ROMANO: How come you bypassed the Grid Iron Dinner?

MR. GIBBS: He was with his girls on spring break.

MS. ROMANO: It wasn't a sort of a message to the mainstream media that he doesn't want to have this incestuous relationship?

MR. GIBBS: It would be news to me that we have an incestuous relationship with the mainstream media.

I think there is a pretty good chance that if we go next year, it will actually be a continuation of the dinner that started last week.

No, the President left Saturday morning with his wife and two girls because they were on spring break.

MS. ROMANO: Well, Axelrod had talked about trying to get the Washington press corps out of its mentality and by, you know, taking them on the road; that's why I was asking the question, to kind of go around them a little bit. I mean, is that part not actually go around them, but to broaden their perspectives. Is that part of the strategy to reach more people?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, this is no, I think the President has talked about the desire to get out of Washington once a week and go to where the American people are.

MR. GIBBS: Nobody is trying to go around anybody. If we were trying to go around the mainstream media, he would have given his opening statement and went back upstairs.

So but I think the President believes it's important to get out and go to Elkhart, Indiana, where the unemployment rate has tripled in a year; or go to California where and visit a state that has one of the few states that has already reached double digit unemployment; or travel to Florida, where the home foreclosure crisis is is at its most urgent.

I think the President understands that he--it's important for him to get to those places and talk to those people.

MS. ROMANO: I have to comment that you've been looking pretty natty up there in your suits and nice silk ties.

MR. GIBBS: Soap and warm water.

MS. ROMANO: There you go.

So, who is helping you here?

MR. GIBBS: I can't divulge names.

MS. ROMANO: Oh, come on.

MR. GIBBS: I have to protect certain identities.

No, I--look, Axelrod has had fun with this because I bought a few new suits. I think my ties have gotten probably more publicity than I have.


MS. ROMANO: And I see you're wearing your presidential cufflinks?

MR. GIBBS: These are my Secret Service cufflinks--

--that the Director gave me as a gift so. No, I'm--you know, I--I know most people are used to seeing me in khakis and a button-down on a plane, dragging my luggage behind me, but I've tried desperately to clean up, comb my hair and sound reasonably intelligent.

MS. ROMANO: All right.

MR. GIBBS: So far so good -- right?

MS. ROMANO: Right, right.

Well, great, thanks for joining us.

MR. GIBBS: Thanks for having me.

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