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Robert Gibbs: How the press secretary changed, and who will follow him

Press secretary Robert Gibbs is stepping down after two years in President Obama's administration.

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According to several reporters, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer picked up some of the workload traditionally associated with a press secretary. Although administration officials acknowledged that Gibbs's advisory role was an extra burden that prevented him from being readily available, they also argued that Pfeiffer was purposefully put on the ground floor of the West Wing with reporters because it was always the administration's strategy that the top communications officials help out one another.

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Other, more junior staffers were also empowered to return calls and handle requests when Gibbs was busy. In the first incarnation, the White House was stacked with chatty senior advisers - namely, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod - who made a habit of calling reporters. The new leadership is not as loose-lipped. Plouffe returns phone calls sparingly and while Daley has long-standing ties with many Washington reporters, he is more disciplined than Emanuel in how he communicates with them.

"The volume of the job requires that it not just be one person," one senior administration official said.

Gibbs, a veteran campaign operative, had testy on-air exchanges with reporters in the briefing room, comparing an American Urban Radio Networks reporter to his young child and often assuming a sanctimonious posture. But several White House reporters said that Gibbs became pleasant, or at least refreshingly blunt and candid, in one-on-one encounters. The problem was that those were few and far between, given his busy schedule, but also, as one reporter put it, because of the time spent "fawning" over the New York Times.

At the lectern, Gibbs's tendency to speak in grammatically contorted sentences challenged reporters looking for an intelligible quote or sound bite, so did his habit of promising to get back to reporters when he didn't see fit to provide an answer.

Those answers rarely proved forthcoming, and Gibbs was embarrassed in a briefing when a reporter asked for answers to questions the press secretary had promised, and failed, to deliver on. Reporters complained that Gibbs all but vanished during foreign trips, and several talked about a time when he stood up the press corps, which had organized a dinner at an expensive restaurant with him in Prague. When members of the press corps bumped into him later that evening on the Charles Bridge, he acted as if his no-show was no big deal. (Gibbs later said that the slight was not intentional and that he had been delayed.)

But toward the end of his tenure, reporters noticed a change in Gibbs's approach. He began sending e-mails to reporters with the subject line "Can I help?," which, according to one reporter, took colleagues by surprise. During the president's trip to India, he came to the rescue of White House press corps members who were suddenly told by Indian security officials that they could not attend a meeting between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Gibbs argued that if the Indians prevented all of the previously agreed upon reporters from entering the room, he would pull Obama out of the bilateral meeting.

According to one administration official, the detente with reporters was in fact led by Gibbs, who began conducting off-the-record lunches with correspondents and arranging for the president to pop up in the back of Air Force One.

horowitzj@washpost.com kornbluta@washpost.com


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