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Obama spokesman Gibbs sounds eager for future strategist role

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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.

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Todd jumped in, demanding to know whether preventing access to regular people was administration policy, too.

"Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on," Gibbs said. When Todd persisted, he added, "Well, Chuck, let me -- I know you've got a show at 9 a.m., and you might want to do a segment on this, but let me just get an answer."

'I will say this'

The hard feelings in the press room can be mutual.

There are a few things about Gibbs that irritate even the least excitable reporters in the briefing room, though none of them would speak for the record out of fear of retaliation. One reporter expressed frustration with the way Gibbs has compared reporters -- and even Sen. John McCain -- to his 6-year-old son because he didn't approve of the way they were behaving. "He uses him as a prop," the reporter said. Unlike press secretaries past, who would make rounds of calls to reporters as they neared deadlines, Gibbs is notoriously tough to get on the phone. His soliloquies are full of "first and foremost" and "I will say this," and he relies on escape-hatch promises to "check and get back to you." This month, Gibbs neglected to tell reporters traveling back from Prague on Air Force One that Justice John Paul Stevens had announced his retirement and refused to talk to them when they found out. Last weekend, Obama broke longstanding tradition by giving the slip to a pool reporter. Later this month, representatives of various news organizations will meet with Gibbs to express what they feel is the administration's contempt for the press.

The White House now turns to a suite of social-networking tools -- YouTube, WhiteHouse.gov, Twitter -- that mix innovation and evasion. The press office used to follow up blast announcements to Twitter followers with heads-up e-mails to reporters. No longer. On the morning of March 12, Gibbs broke major news in a Twitter message: "The President will delay leaving for Indonesia and Australia -- will now leave Sunday -- the First Lady and the girls will not be on the trip." On March 31, Burton used his Twitter account for spin: "For context, today is not the first time potus will have said offshore drilling is part of a comprehensive energy plan."

While one front-row occupant mulled over a crossword puzzle during a recent press briefing, other reporters made the most of Gibbs's presence. On April 6, Jake Tapper of ABC pressed him on whether the administration still considered Hamid Karzai an "ally," given the Afghan president's hostile remarks toward the United States. Gibbs would only call Karzai the "democratically elected leader of Afghanistan." Kerry Eleveld, a reporter for the Advocate, asked about the Department of Justice citing Colin Powell's opposition to repealing "Don't ask, don't tell," despite the fact that he now supports the change, and Gibbs called the DoJ's case "odd."

Such signals carry more weight because of Gibbs's closeness to the president.

In the interview, the press secretary emphasized that first, his travels with Obama have sharpened Gibbs's own perception of the national mood. And second, his exposure to the briefing room has deepened his understanding of the media, its needs and flaws. And lastly, his deep personal relationship with Obama -- the way they both missed their children on the trail -- gave him a special insight into the president's thinking.

"The three is sort of a nexus," he said.

Past occupants of Gibbs's office say that his special relationship with the president, dating back to when Obama first staffed up as a senator, makes it likely that he will eventually join the ranks of special advisers -- Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and, ostensibly, Rahm Emanuel -- on a full-time basis.

"I don't know him and we've never met, but my gut tells me that after the November elections, he'll go inside," said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush. "It's just too exhausting a job."

Gibbs is careful not to appear to be auditioning for a senior strategist job that he says is already taken. Axelrod, however, has been open about his exasperation with Washington and has made it clear privately and publicly that he doesn't intend to stick around forever.

"My attitude about Washington is what my mother used to tell me when I was a child," Axelrod said in a phone interview. "She'd say, 'I love you. It's the things you do I hate.' "

But when asked whether he would soon shift his attention to the reelection campaign after the November midterms, Axelrod said, "I've not said that I am going to do that at all. I expect to be helpful to [Obama] in the future, and certainly 2012 is out there and it's something to think about, but I think if you were to look forward a year, I expect I will be where I am."

Gibbs was on the same page: "I would bet a decent amount of money on this, that David will be doing what he is doing, where he is doing it, a year from today," said Gibbs, adding that he loves his current job. On the subject of whether he or Plouffe would make a better choice for the message-keeper job, he insisted that there had been no discussions on the matter. "When or if changes are made, I think a thousand different variables will go into ultimately what the staff looks like more than a year from now," he said.

Gibbs attended so many policy meetings, he said, because he chose to be a press secretary who knows what he is talking about and knows when to be discreet, rather than one who is kept in the dark. But he also plays a strategic role in attending. "A lot of the meetings he and I attend," said Axelrod, "we are asked to monitor the discussion because we are asked to interpret."

"Don't get me wrong," Gibbs said. "I am of strong will and opinion, and as an adviser to the president, and someone who has been an adviser to him for several years now, dating back to his Senate campaign, I am certainly happy to weigh in on certain directions."

Leaning over the round table and assessing his worth, Gibbs argued that he not only had the ability to channel the president's thoughts but was an adviser who, like Axelrod, could deliver unpleasant analysis. "If the requirement is that -- if you look over the last six years, who has had to go and tell him bad news or things he didn't want to hear," he said, "I think it would not be inaccurate to say that the top two people at that list are David and myself."

His secretary popped in and reminded him that he had a 4:30 with the president in the Oval Office.


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