White House's Gibbs has mastered art of speaking with his hand

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; A02

For Democrats, the only good thing to come from Tuesday's loss of the Senate election in Massachusetts is this: It could wipe the grin off Robert Gibbs's face.

The Democrats' failed struggle to hold onto Ted Kennedy's seat in the liberal state showed how badly the party's brand had been damaged over the past year. But as the White House press corps challenged President Obama's press secretary on Tuesday afternoon about the anticipated loss, Gibbs answered with his usual mix of wisecracks and insults.

"Broadly speaking, can you talk about the difference between 59 and 60 votes in the Senate and what that means for the president's agenda this year?"

"Broadly, it's one," Gibbs answered.

Will Obama hold a news conference Wednesday to discuss the results?

"Be here around 10 a.m. If we're not here, start without us."

"Is there something you could have done better," asked Sheryl Stolberg of the New York Times, so that "you wouldn't be in the situation that you're in right now?"

"Sheryl," Gibbs replied, "I'll read this transcript and think there's things that I could have done better." No doubt.

On Tuesday, he allowed that Obama was "angry" over Democrats' troubles in Massachusetts. "With whom is he angry?" a reporter asked.

"I didn't expand on that," the spokesman replied.

"Okay, can you now?"

"I won't now."

"But you might tomorrow?"

"There's always hope," Gibbs said, using a favorite Obama campaign word.

"Audacious," interjected CBS News's Mark Knoller, using another.

Gibbs acts as though he's playing himself in the movie version of his job. In this imaginary film, he is the smart-alecky press secretary, offering zippy comebacks and cracking jokes to make his questioners look ridiculous. It's no great feat to make reporters look bad, but this act also sends a televised image of a cocksure White House to ordinary Americans watching at home.

This is the most visible manifestation of a larger problem the Obama White House has. Many Obama loyalists from the 2008 race still seem, after a year on the job, to be having trouble exiting campaign mode. They sometimes appear to be running a taxpayer-funded rapid-response operation.

At Tuesday's briefing, Gibbs looked down and shuffled his papers as the Associated Press's Jennifer Loven began with two questions about the White House's role in the Massachusetts race. Gibbs gave her two dismissive waves of the hand and told her to wait for "the outcome of the election, which, as many people know, is ongoing."

The correspondent for Reuters asked two more Massachusetts questions. Gibbs treated him to two more dismissive waves. "We will schedule a briefing, not unlike this, at approximately the same time tomorrow," the spokesman said.

The line of questioning continued, and the press secretary assured his audience that "these are going to be all great questions tomorrow." "So you'll answer them tomorrow?" asked The Post's Mike Shear.

"I promise I'll be here tomorrow," Gibbs proposed.

Contrast the glib Gibbs gibes with a press briefing on the same topic a few hours earlier by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

"I don't need the Massachusetts race to tell me the psyche of the American people," the Maryland Democrat said. "People are angry, people are fearful. . . . Probably none of us in the room knew how deep the recession that confronted us was." He acknowledged that the Democrats' agenda "has not affected . . . change as quickly as all of us would like." He admitted that "we're all pretty unpopular." He assured the reporters that "I get it."

Gibbs didn't quite get it, though, as CBS's Chip Reid joked that he would try a question on "a different topic: the election in Massachusetts."

The press secretary drummed a bah-dum-bum on the lectern. Reid ignored the percussion and asked whether the "groundswell of support for a Republican in the blue state of Massachusetts for a candidate who's running against the president's agenda" meant that "the White House has simply lost touch with the American people."

Gibbs gave another dismissive wave and cited a CBS News poll that wasn't about Massachusetts.

"Good diversion," Reid replied.

"I hate to quote CBS to CBS," Gibbs continued with a grin.

About the closest the spokesman came to acknowledging fault in Massachusetts was to say that Obama "understands that frustration" among voters, but he then added that the president "heard it when he ran for the United States Senate, beginning in 2003." Unemployment, now at 10 percent, was 5.7 percent at the end of 2003.

Gibbs was so combative that when he turned to the Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler, he tried to predict her question. "There's a race near Connecticut," he guessed.

"I wasn't going to mention New England at all," Meckler said. "But feel free to answer your own question."

Don't give him any ideas.

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