Politics

Jen Psaki Can’t Win

Jen Psaki purses her lips as she stands at a podium in the briefing room
Jen Psaki at the White House in December. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Jen Psaki, whose job it is to reassure the press and the public that the main character in the White House has everything under control, has become a bit of a main character herself. She’s been showing up on podcasts and answering “How I Get It Done” questions in the Cut amid the fallout from her Dec. 6 comment dismissing the idea of mailing Americans free COVID rapid tests. It’s certainly a contrast to the early-days post-Trump heroism ascribed to her by fans who circulated clips of her fending off hostile questioners with hashtags like #PsakiBomb, celebrating how she “destroyed” a reporter from Fox News. Either way you look at it, Psaki has played a starring role in the administration, exceeding even the vice president’s. Even if it’s clear this hasn’t exactly been by design, it’s less clear whether there’s anything Psaki can do about it.

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It’s no secret that President Joe Biden sought to reestablish a White House characterized by a distinctly un-Trumpian lack of drama, or that he has succeeded so completely on this front that his own attempts at messaging go mostly unheard. His hopes for his press secretary seem to have been similar. “The spokesperson is not and shouldn’t be the story because if you are it’s usually for bad reasons as we’ve seen,” said Jay Carney, one of Obama’s press secretaries, of Psaki’s appointment. “She definitely represents a return to an era that was bipartisan where the spokesperson was somebody who could credibly speak on behalf of the president, the White House and the administration and the country.”

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In the way she conducts herself in the job, Psaki fits that profile, but it’s not obvious that such a “return” is possible. Press secretaries famously became the story early and often during Donald Trump’s presidency. Sean Spicer never even tried to establish himself as a plausibly neutral presence. His very first press briefing, a jeremiad against the press for how it covered the crowd size of Trump’s inauguration, made headlines for its obvious and desperate—but frighteningly watchable!—distortions. Sarah Huckabee Sanders began her tenure by presenting herself as the first mother to serve as White House press secretary—crediting Trump for that innovation—and, despite her very real command of the room and comparatively positive relationship with the press corps, set a tone of peculiar but dogged servility to the president. She even started one press briefing by reading aloud a letter from a child praising Trump. These and Kayleigh McEnany’s briefings were emphatically performances; there was an overtly theatrical dimension to them and to the various ways they reflected their employer. (I except Stephanie Grisham here, who has the peculiar distinction of conducting no briefings whatsoever during her stint as press secretary.)

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Once the press room became a stage, it became hard to think of it as otherwise. The Trump era, coupled with how easy partisan social media has made it to package and propagate clips of confrontations between press secretaries and journalists, transformed both the role and the public’s understanding of it. It is both instructive and sobering to look back at press secretaries who at the time of their tenures were characterized as pugilistic. Obama-era figures like Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney were sometimes described as combative, but clips of their encounters are striking for how poorly they match the pace and tenor of present-day confrontations. Their answers, even to hostile questions, are far too long and detailed to go viral in the way social media algorithms have taught us to recognize. Compared with the style established by Spicer, the aggression seems positively repressed. (This is not necessarily an apt description of the Obama administration’s orientation toward the press as a whole—which was indeed rather hostile, and which Jen Psaki herself has said she did not want to replicate. It’s more a reflection of how the prominence of the role has transformed.)

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This is all to say that Psaki is, in many ways, a return to the older style of press secretary. Her answers are usually long—much longer than Sanders’, certainly—and detailed. She does not punish or ignore certain outlets; she calls on everyone. Her interviews are anodyne and factual. This is not the kind of person you’d expect to be out there generating #PsakiBombs. Her affect is for the most part amiable, matter-of-fact, and restrained.

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What I’ve come to realize is that restraint may be precisely why she became a sensation. The comparative lack of performativity, the emphasis on competence and completeness and even a certain blandness, was incredibly welcome to many Americans exhausted by Trumpian invective. But many observers didn’t just want a return to normalcy—they wanted a more full-throated rejection of the recent past. This created an environment where Psaki’s occasional sarcasm—she does have a dry wit and uses it well—was received with enthusiasm that was disproportionate to the intensity of the encounter described. “It’s pretty rich, isn’t it?” she said recently while highlighting the irony of Republican politicians complaining about not getting enough from the infrastructure bill they voted against. But PSAKI DESTROYS TED CRUZ!—to take another example of an incident hailed as a #PsakiBomb—doesn’t perfectly reflect what happened when Psaki was recently asked about right-wing objections to Biden considering Black female candidates for the Supreme Court. She simply read Cruz’s remarks praising Trump for nominating Amy Coney Barrett, a white woman, and noted the hypocrisy. It was an able and not particularly dramatic parry (augmented by a somewhat more pointed “I am blissfully not a spokesperson for Sen. Cruz”) that got narrated as an annihilation. That doesn’t reflect Psaki so much as it does the acrid environment in which news items get packaged.

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Naturally, being held to such a pedestal, let alone podium, means there’s a height to fall from, so it’s no surprise that Psaki’s mistakes—of course she was going to make some—have received similarly massive, and personalized, attention. When a reporter asked Psaki back in December why more tests weren’t being made available to the public by the government, her sarcastic reply, “Should we just send one to every American?” was tonally jarring and obviously wrong on the merits—the government would start sending free tests in January. That comment became a true mini-scandal. But her response two weeks later, when asked whether she had reflected on her tone that day, was interesting:

I would say there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t leave this podium and wish I would’ve said something with greater context or more precision or additional information. And that day there was a lot of good questioning on testing, and during that briefing I conveyed a lot of information about our expansion of testing, about the 50 million tests that we were making available, about the 20,000 free testing sites, and should I have included that additional context again in that answer? Yes, going back, I wish I would have done that. To be clear, so people have accurate information about how it works out there, which I know is your objective as well as mine, we’re making tests free and accessible without the risk of them going to waste in the home of people who do not want them.

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From a purely argumentative perspective, this is brilliant stuff. It restates what the Biden administration did do, frames as slightly absurd the expectation that she should have to include all that in an answer that was always going to get reduced to a sound bite, expresses regret (perhaps a little sardonically), and slyly enfolds into the charitable suggestion that her interlocutor is equally interested in accuracy the reason she felt mailing tests to everyone was inadvisable: Some people would not want them. It’s very well done! It’s also far too long to reach virality. And it doesn’t fit into the dunking ecosystem.

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But it’s symptomatic of how the Psaki era is being processed in public: The sound bites, those praising her and those attacking her, don’t tell the whole story. When she recently characterized a Fox News segment on crime as part of an “alternate universe” that distorts Biden’s record, right-wing outlets seized on the comment. Her response—on Twitter—is almost hilariously un-Twittery. It includes a clipping of her full remarks, which are so extensive I suspect many or most Twitter users won’t bother to read them.

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Psaki is justly hailed by many, including Chris Wallace, as one of the best White House press secretaries in recent memory. That is also, it must be said, mixed praise: Being White House press secretary is not a neutral undertaking. It necessitates obscuring things from the public and cultivating a positive relationship with the press in order to curry favorable coverage (Sarah Huckabee Sanders was remarkably good at this part of the job).

Even Psaki’s Twitter gaffes are comparatively mild. On Jan. 16, a harmless tweet of hers in which she said, “Growing up in the northeast I will never understand the closing of stores and restaurants when there is barely an inch of snow on the ground yet,” got enormous pushback that reflects, among other things, the extent to which her popularity may roughly correspond to Biden’s approval rating. It’s a notable tweet, too, for being unusually personal: Psaki presents as a Cincinnati Bengals fan but is otherwise remarkably professional in her self-presentation—by which I mean impersonal and aggressively un-idiosyncratic.

A canvas that blank means that any flash of individualism stands out, for better and for worse. Any shade, any sarcasm, any hint of personality leads either to accolades for annihilating political opponents or attacks for the same. It’s an interesting conundrum. To the extent that Biden and Psaki’s comparatively staid management of the national stage counters Steve Bannon’s “flood the zone with shit” media strategy, they have suffered: A fart stands out more when it isn’t surrounded by sewage.

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