President Barack Obama’s search for a new press secretary is likely to include a redefinition of the job itself, with a focus on stopping leaks, streamlining messaging — and, most of all, cutting the testosterone level in the briefing room.
The administration isn’t necessarily looking for a female press secretary, aides say, but the White House is clearly looking to shed a bit of its boy’s club reputation.
Obama’s team is looking to soften the tone of the administration after two years of press secretary Robert Gibbs – an Alpha Male who split his time advising Obama and dueling with the “professional left,” print reporters who griped about his failure to return their calls, and the TV correspondents whom he often compared on camera to his seven-year-old son.
At the same time, Obama’s team is looking to, in effect, downgrade a position that had grown into a West Wing power center under Gibbs, one of the few modern press secretaries to move beyond the role of messenger to wield genuine power in the Oval Office.
“I think you’re going to find somebody who’s in fewer meetings in which they also play an advisory role,” said a senior administration official. “But I still think this person will be of significant stature.”
The problem with replacing Gibbs is finding someone without his weaknesses — he was regarded as disorganized, distractible and combative — yet possesses his unique virtues – an agile mind, quick tongue and uncanny ability to express Obama’s views with the confidence of a man in all the meetings.
“I’m generally in favor of lowering the temperature in the [briefing] room,” said former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, who has counseled Gibbs from time to time. “You don’t have to win every argument. It’s a place where you have to get your information across and develop long-term relationships… But it’s also so different than it was 15 years ago when I was doing it. It’s much less about substance and so much more about the daily battle on TV.”
Gibbs had tried to find a new role for himself in the White House, several sources told POLITICO, but was unable to agree to an arrangement that he and Obama found mutually acceptable. He didn’t work out the final details of his departure – including arrangements on the role he would play on Obama’s reelection campaign — until this week.
The search for a replacement was briefly put on hold out of respect for Gibbs, but now the wheels are whirring.
Incoming deputy chief of staff David Plouffe – a power even before he arrives in the White House on Monday – is leading a search team that also includes communications director Dan Pfeiffer. Plouffe, the high priest of Obama’s 2008 no-drama ethos has reportedly been incensed by what he believes to be an unacceptable number of leaks.
He’s also thrown open the post-Gibbs selection process, instructing communications staffers to look beyond a pair well-regarded administration insiders, deputy press secretary Bill Burton and Jay Carney, Vice President Joe Biden's spokesman.
Gibbs plans to stay at least several more weeks. Plouffe and Pfeiffer, for their part, are in no rush to choose a replacement, aides say, and Bill Daley, the newly anointed White House chief of staff, has made it clear he wants to weigh in on the hire, which he considers to be a significant part of his portfolio.
“Bill’s a nice guy, but he realizes that this is one of his first tests,” said a longtime Daley friend. “He’s not going to let this decision take place without some serious input.”
And Obama staffers have repeatedly asked Stephanie Cutter, a special assistant to the president who served as John Kerry’s spokeswoman during the 2004 campaign, to throw her name into the hat, but so far she’s demurred, according to administration insiders.
The first stage of the search is likely to include a blue sky canvass of any reasonable candidate – even some high-profile women TV or radio correspondents, sources say.
But administration officials say they won’t be limited by gender – and that ultimately Obama and Daley will make the final decision, based on a candidate’s gravitas, relationship with reporters, and chemistry with Obama.
“I have a feeling that it will come right back to Bill and Jay,” said a person close to the process. “It almost always comes back to the people in your comfort zone in the first place.”
There are several other male candidates that are likely to get a serious look, including deputy press secretary Josh Earnest, current DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse and a pair of agency flacks – Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell and P.J. Crowley, who delivers the daily briefing at the State Department.
Neither Morrell or Crowley is considered a front-line candidate, but they do have an advantage over the others: They are so steeped in their policy areas they will add an element of gravitas to the briefing room – to contrast the increasingly partisan tone of powerhouse partisan surrogates outside the White House like Gibbs and soon-to-depart senior adviser David Axelrod.
“The next White House press secretary needs to clearly grasp the difference between a campaign and government, to understand that from the first moment they stop up to the briefing room podium, because there’s a huge difference from when you are speaking as a candidate and when you are speaking as the president of the United States,” said Ed Chen, a former Bloomberg reporter who served as president of the White House Correspondents Association.
And that is something, Chen added, that the Obama White House has been slow to understand.
“Not just the press secretary, but the entire White House press staff was in this very combative campaign mindset and failed to recognize the difference between governing and campaigning,” said Chen, now federal communications director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Despite all the protests, Gibbs rarely changed his M.O., engaging in a dialogue – a soliloquy – with a few reporters, whether it’s [NBC’s] Chuck Todd or [ABC’s] Jake Tapper or a print reporter.”
Administration officials say they intend to showcase women officials no matter who replaces Gibbs – and that the absence of Gibbs and Axelrod opens the path for rising female stars in the administration like Psaki, Cutter, and health care guru Nancy Ann DeParle.
“The role of the press secretary who is put out there to be not just the mouthpiece, but the negotiator to the press… That sort of position isn’t normally thought of as female,” said Jessica Coen, editor of Jezebel, a feminist web site focused on women in politics and the media.
“Women aren’t typically thought of as someone who could go out there and have everything thrown at them and do it with a smile. It’s important to have a woman come out there and say, I can play this game too, because it’s a co-ed game.”
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