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Jay Carney's first White House briefing: Standing room only

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 9:38 PM

Day One was a victory for the new White House press secretary: no gaffes.

Jay Carney fielded dozens of questions Wednesday, mainly on the federal budget, in his new role as perhaps the second most visible figure in the U.S. government.

Carney, who had served as Vice President Biden's communications director, replaced Robert Gibbs, the longtime adviser to President Obama who was the press secretary from the start of the administration until last week.

Carney's first noon briefing was a highly anticipated event in political Washington. It was standing room only, completely packed with photographers and writers - many of whom rarely attend the sessions.

He entered the room with half a dozen aides from the White House press office, a much larger entourage than usually accompanied Gibbs.

Carney seemed earnest at times, discussing his new job by saying, "I do work for the president, but I'm here to help the press understand what we're doing." But pressed on the budget, he joked, "I'm not an economist, and I know you've heard that phrase before." Gibbs had often announced what he was "not" as he sidestepped questions.

Carney employed all of the tactics press secretaries have long used to avoid questions, referring queries about foreign policy to the State Department, refusing to answer hypothetical questions and using phrases such as "the president is committed to" and then repeating talking points.

He stayed cool through persistent questioning about why Obama refused to offer a specific proposal in his budget to overhaul Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

"He led for two years," Carney said. "This is a president who has done big things. He has tackled hard issues."

Carney made no major news and didn't offer much fresh insight into Obama's thinking. That made the event a success for the administration but a bit frustrating for journalists.

Carney is used to being on camera, as he often spoke as a political analyst in his previous career as a Time magazine journalist. But standing at a podium answering questions on a wide range of issues is a different experience, and White House officials had spent the weeks since Carney was named to the post preparing him in mock sessions.

He seemed a bit nervous at first, looking carefully at his notes as he answered the first questions. But near the end, he even answered a hypothetical.

Asked who he expected would play him on "Saturday Night Live," he said, "God forbid that anyone does."

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