Obama spokesman Gibbs sounds eager for future strategist role

Robert Gibbs, spokesman for President Obama, says Ukraine is announcing it will get rid of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, enough to build several nuclear weapons, by 2012.
By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Robert Gibbs does not seem particularly attached to his office.

There is a dormant fireplace ("a problem with the flue," Gibbs said), a cluttered desk, a flat-screen television and a smaller monitor simultaneously displaying C-SPAN, MSNBC, the networks. But all of that came with the place. He has done little decorating. The built-in bookshelves are half-filled with uncracked hardcovers, including a tamale cookbook, and there are cream-colored gaps of wall space between a poster of Bobby Kennedy, a blown-up photo of Gibbs's young son on Air Force One and a framed picture of President Obama watching his press secretary's inaugural briefing.

The office doesn't look lived-in because the occupant is only half-occupied these days with his official duties. Gibbs serves two roles in the White House. He is the public face and mouthpiece of the administration, but he is also the consummate presidential confidant -- the Obama traveling buddy during the campaign and ever-trusted Oval Office adviser. The Alabama native, who has been shaped by the Capitol Hill fray and campaign knife fights, is considered, along with Obama's presidential campaign manager, David Plouffe, a top candidate to take the place of senior strategist David Axelrod when the Washington-weary keeper of the Obama message leaves to focus on the 2012 reelection. That isn't happening anytime soon, which means Gibbs is stuck on double duty.

Gibbs is too discreet to say which job he prefers, but it's not hard to figure out. Listen to the press secretary talk about the media as a predictable, hyperventilating rabble obsessed with access and covering "everything as make or break," or observe his frustration percolating in the briefing room. Then ask him whether he has improved as a big-picture strategist, and the administration's leading purveyor of evasive, circuitous sentences suddenly speaks to the point.

"Oh, absolutely!" Gibbs said.

"I admit: I didn't come to this naturally," Gibbs added about his strategic chops during a recent interview. "How you approach every day tactically doesn't necessarily determine who wins either a campaign, a nomination, an election or a legislative battle."

"Robert is far more of a strategist and plays more of a strategic role than people realize," said Anita Dunn, the Obama administration's former communications director. "He is one of the very few people who can sit in on anything he wants to sit in on."

"The idea of Gibbs taking on a senior adviser role was under discussion as a possible arrangement even before the current arrangement," said one Democratic official with knowledge of staffing decisions during the transition, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Gibbs is tethered to a lectern that matters a lot less than it used to. For now it is Axelrod who remains responsible for the long-term goal of protecting Obama's image as a historic change agent in pursuit of bold agenda items. And among the president's closest advisers, Gibbs is the best-versed in the Beltway back-and-forth necessary to joust with Republicans and rebuke reporters on a daily basis. While deputy press secretary Bill Burton is being groomed for Gibbs's job, and other Democratic communications specialists, such as Brad Woodhouse at the Democratic National Committee, are considered potential successors, none has Gibbs's authority.

"He's definitely got the chops for a broader political portfolio," said Jim Jordan, the Democratic operative who brought Gibbs onto the 2004 Kerry campaign, before they both left abruptly. "He understands campaigns and Washington and the way that politics and policy and communications mesh."

Taking a long view

Much of Gibbs's day is spent sitting in on a broad swath of policy meetings in the Oval Office, educating himself for his public performances, but also for the greater private role to come. Some policy advisers have wondered why the administration's flack is so often in attendance, but insiders fluent in the administration's power dynamics know Obama values his views. According to one administration official, who would not be quoted speaking about internal White House discussions, Gibbs late last year pointed out the political perils of letting the Justice Department try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court and has urged the president to ignore Wall Street critics who argue Obama has adopted too populist a tone when speaking out against executive bonuses. (Gibbs declined to comment about his counsel on civilian trials, but as for his stance against executive bonuses, he said, "I wouldn't dissuade you from that one.")

Gibbs is also a regular at foreign policy meetings. He volunteered that he attended all 33 hours of the Afghanistan briefings, though he noted that he never said a word. He did chime in during last month's escalating tensions with Israel, if only to make sure the president understood the "conventional wisdom" promoted in the media, that Obama's toughness with Likud hard-liners would potentially erode his domestic Jewish support. "For a lot of reasons, he would discount that," Gibbs said, referring to the president.

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