Don’t All Speak at Once

Robert Gibbs’ successor as press secretary may have a lot of competition.

US Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Click image to expand.
Outgoing White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs

The president’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, announced today that he’s leaving the White House. So who will speak for the president now? This question won’t be answered merely by naming a successor. The number of people who can speak for the president—plus the inevitable blend of policy defense and political rhetoric that takes place as we move toward the 2012 campaign—could make for some confusion in the White House.

The president spoke to Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times shortly after Gibbs’ announcement. Gibbs “will continue to shape the dialogue politically for many years to come,” Obama said. That’s an easy bet. Freed of that confining podium, Gibbs can indulge his more tart, purely political side. His departure already had a nice political edge, partially stepping on John Boehner’s big day. (Gibbs’ relief at not having to be on time for the tight schedule of the press secretary, and the inevitable apologies and scrambling his lateness required, may be so liberating that jig dancing might provide Gibbs as much exercise as his bike rides.)

It will be important for the president to have a pungent outside voice. In the snort and grunt of the campaign season, the president’s re-election bid will need some kind of organization that can be a tough advocate for Obama yet remain one step removed from the White House. On the Republican side there are already groups like this, such as American Crossroads, the outside organization set up by Bush veterans Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. Crossroads can play hardball without their tactics necessarily hurting the GOP nominee. This worked well for Republicans in 2010 despite Democratic efforts to tie the GOP to Rove.

Rove and Gillespie, however, are unlike Gibbs in one important respect: They can credibly say that they operate independent of the next GOP nominee. There will always be a question as to whether Gibbs is speaking for the president. This will get confusing and cause headaches for Gibbs’ successor.

It’s not just Gibbs who will make things confusing. White House adviser David Axelrod is an important voice for the president. He’s also leaving but not (really) leaving. He’ll be in Chicago working on Obama’s re-election. David Plouffe, meanwhile, the former Obama campaign manager, is headed in to the White House. He also can be an effective voice for the president. If former Commerce Secretary William Daley becomes the chief of staff, he too will be a spokesman for the president. (Pete Rouse, the interim chief of staff, doesn’t play that role.) When the campaign gets under way, there will also probably be another official spokesman for the Obama campaign.

That’s a lot of voices to compete with the new press secretary. This is not all bad. One of the problems of the Obama administration early on was that the president had to do too much of the talking because the administration had no other effective voice. Obama is still the most effective salesman for his policies, but when he appears so much that you half-expect he’ll pop up on the screen of your ATM, his words lose their punch.

The downside of so many voices is that when the president wants to send a clear message it’s not clear which channel to use. Using multiple channels of communication increases the chance that at any given moment one of those channels can step on the official message of the day.

One possible solution is to neuter Gibbs’ successor and shut him out of what’s really going on, which is what George W. Bush did with some of his press secretaries. The job of the press secretary moves closer to something like press clerk. This might streamline the lines of communication a little, but it would be a disaster. The press secretary has to have power—with the president and the press. He or she is the one at the podium every day, which is still the easiest and fastest way for the president to convey his message. To get that message heard, the press secretary has to have some weight. The press secretary is also the one with the most day-to-day interaction with the correspondents who cover the president. If worked correctly, those relationships can provide the kind of context for presidential coverage that Obama thinks is so lacking. (This is why former journalists are often smart picks for the job.)

The reason Obama is not likely to pick a “soft” replacement is that it’s impossible, as Bush learned, to create a press secretary with a limited portfolio. It creates a situation in which the gaffes or controversial statements get covered but anything the president wants people to hear doesn’t. The new press secretary will also need standing because the policy battle over the next few months will be severe and detailed. Obama will need a press secretary who can speak with command about the specifics of budgets and spending. (This was one of Ari Fleischer’s talents from years working on the Ways and Means Committee.)

In college Gibbs played goalie for the North Carolina State soccer team *—which was good training for his White House job. Now he moves closer to something like striker. His successor has to hope that the president’s overall communications operation won’t look like pee-wee soccer, where the ball is surrounded by six players all kicking but going nowhere.

Correction, Jan. 5, 2011: This article originally said that Robert Gibbs played soccer at South Carolina State. He played at, and graduated from, North Carolina State. Return to the corrected sentence.

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