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Obama spokesman Gibbs sounds eager for future strategist role

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; A01

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.

He explained, employing his quote-defying dialect: "If all you do is get focused on what this does to this, and what this does to this, you will be so paralyzed that you will never make a decision. It's not easy. If you take the long view, you have to take it."

Inside the theater

Gibbs's public role is concerned with more immediate demands, and his press-secretary perch is less lofty than it used to be.

Gibbs's lectern stands in a room that was once the White House swimming pool and, before that, a laundry room. In the Gibbs era of Obama message control, reporters in the briefing theater are slowly being reduced to a chorus complaining about access, or, worse, scenery in an anachronistic play. An hour or so before a 1:30 press briefing last month, reporters started staking out spots among the blue leather seats. The foreign reporters trickled in first, then the American print reporters, then the swaggering television reporters. Gibbs marched through a sliding door and took his place at the lectern.

"Apologies for the delays, guys," he said.

Then he dispensed with the niceties. By and large, positive coverage has always been a fact of life in the Obama universe, so it's not surprising that the administration's press secretary, especially one who is personally close to the president, is less interested in wooing the reporters in the room than sparring with them.

Gibbs, who looks older than his 39 years, had on one of his favored pastel ties. He frequently made careful, no-smudge adjustments of his glasses and held a silver pen in his right hand but never used it. He gamely took a question about Rahm Emanuel lobbying then-Rep. Eric Massa in the nude, and then wanly addressed further grievances about lack of access. Chip Reid of CBS News challenged Gibbs on why the president seemed to not be calling enough members of Congress in support of health-care reform. The press secretary volleyed and then abruptly moved on.

"I guess you didn't like that one," Reid observed.

Chuck Todd of NBC asked what happened to the Nobel Prize money the president had won.

"Bill, give the money back," Gibbs said, turning to Burton, his deputy, who sat against the wall taking notes on a laptop. "You know, I thought it was weird that Bill wanted to buy my lunch."

Toward the end of the conference, Steven Thomma, a McClatchy correspondent, asked why, on a trip to Philadelphia the day before, organizers prevented reporters from talking to attendees at the event.

"That was for the benefit of the people," Gibbs chortled.

The joke didn't go over well.

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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